Accountability, Internet Style!

I’ve been working on having more family dinners. Some weeks are more successful than others, but after several weeks we usually manage three. Once it was four, and we were all sort of impressed with ourselves. As if to show us we’re new at this, the universe conspired the very next week to have us count up exactly zero family dinners. Choir and theater performances, meetings and sleepovers all piled up, and it was two kids eating here, one kid eating out, and parents eating late.

Back in this post, I talked about how some reading, and having a weekly plan, helped to get us all to the table. The week we had no family dinners? No plan was made.

So, Sunday will be the day I post the plan for the week. I’ll actually type it up, and other people will read it. Saturday, I get a score!  It’ll be a way for me to set aside time to reliably make a plan, and to evaluate what is working and what isn’t.  As a bonus, all you Cheepsters get to watch!  Sometime soon I’ll put something ridiculous like ‘homemade ravioli’ on the plan, and imagine the suspense of waiting to see if I pulled it off.  It’ll be like Scandal, with a short white girl that’s much less stylish playing the lead.  And a tall beardy-headed guy playing Jake. And only dinner at risk, not national security. But maybe I get a white hat?

These plans will follow the weekly plan I’d posted earlier. That’s pretty much always in my head when I’m sorting out a week of meals. It will vary depending on what’s in my fridge/freezer, and what’s on sale.

I’m also not going to list everything–I’ve always got fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and frozen vegetables.  When we all sit down, my goal is for the plates to have: meat, cooked vegetable, raw vegetable, fruit, starch.  So if you look at the meal and think, “Wait, roast pork? That’s not a whole meal!”, you can mentally add those things. Or hell, I can just make up an abbreviation for it. CVRVFS. No. That looks like something the gynecologist would tell me needed a follow-up pap in a month.

It’ll sort itself out.  Let’s go. First public CheepieAustin Weekly Meal Plan:

Mon:  pork fried rice, broccoli, apples, spinach salad

Tue:  leftover posole (from the weekend), cornbread, avocado, grapes

Wed:  baked chicken thighs, pasta with garlic and oil, carrot and celery sticks, steamed spinach

Thur:  Refrigerator Buffet! (need a refresher on this? check here)

Fri:  Octoberfest party with friends

Saturday and Sunday are still not included, because we’re all over the place those days. We might meet friends, go out, smoke BBQ for 20, there’s no telling. My goal here is the weeknight family dinner, so I’m sticking to that.

This is a light week, really. I’ve got leftovers on Tuesday and Thursday, and a night off built in.  Let’s see how I do.

Cheep Cheep!

Ways to Use Things That You Might Have Overbought

Avoiding grocery guilt is a goal here at Cheepie.  I don’t want you to buy things, have them sit in the crisper, and then throw them out in a week.  Or in a few weeks.  I want you to eat those deals, because they’re a good thing!

Here are some ideas for things you might buy this week.  If you’ve got ideas, please share in the comments–I’m always looking for new ways to cook the things my family likes.

HEB‘s organic broccoli:  Broccoli is super easy to freeze.  Boil it for 3-4 minutes, then dump it into a colander, then dump that into some ice water.  Drain and toss it in a freezer bag. If you’ve got a vacuum sealer, all the better.   If not, I’m here to tell you my kids have never not eaten broccoli because I didn’t seal it up properly. If yours do, send them over here and we’ll have a word.

Apples of whatever stripe you choose:  Have you been buying those pouches of apple/pear/plum/chai/rutebega puree?  Have you thought to yourself, “Hey, self, isn’t $1 a lot to pay for 4oz of fruit puree?”  If so, let me take you back to a time before cell phones, before the internet, and before people looked up recipes online.  It’s ok, we’re just going to visit a little while.

In those days, there were cookbooks, and in the early 1990s The Silver Palate Cookbook, and the follow-up, The New Basics Cookbook were the proto-foodies gestational sac.  From these books arose the sun-dried tomato craze, the over-use of pesto, and the rise of goat cheese.  I’m looking at The New Basics right now, and you know what chapter I’m on? Microwave Miracles.  This book, published in 1989, by people responsible for untold numbers of dinner parties serving Chicken Marbella (click here), has an entire chapter of recipes they call Microwave Miracles; the chapter is a list of recipes elsewhere in the book that have microwave instructions, followed by nine recipes in the chapter proper.

The only one I’m interested in is the applesauce.  Because it’s simple, and it works. They suggest you can microwave ‘Shrimp on a Bed of Leeks’.  I’m here to say please do not do that.  In fact, the list of things suggested in this chapter that I’d like you to never do is long, and that’ll have to wait, because right now you need to make applesauce.  I love this book, but please don’t microwave shrimp and leeks.

Yes, you can make applesauce on a stove top.  Of course you can,you’re a strong, independent person and can do what you want.  I’m saying this is faster, and simpler, and requires less attention.  You are free to eschew those things.  I’d happily listen to your eschewing in the comments (bless you!).

My Applesauce Plan, based on my Rickety Old Cookbook

  • 4 apples that you like, with at least one tart one
  • 1 cup water
  • 2T lemon juice
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 1/2 t ground cinnamon

Core, peel and slice apples into chunks.  Mix apples and all other ingredients in a microwave safe dish. Microwave 3 minutes.  Use a potato masher to smash the fruit, and microwave another three minutes.  Repeat the mashing.  At this point, you should pretty much have apple sauce, which you may put in any container of your liking.  If there are too many big bits, microwave for 90 sec intervals and continue with the mashing until it looks like what you want to eat.

I know it all seems complicated.  But cutting up apples and microwaving them is something you can do.  And there won’t be EDTA, guar gum, or corn syrup involved. It’s 10 minute applesauce!

So, there’s two things to do with things on sale this week. If you’ve bought a bunch of something, and are at a loss?  Let CheepieAustin know!  I have experience with this situation, whether it’s cabbage, beef tongue, or peaches.  Go ahead, try to stump me!

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter–when I find a good deal I take a photo and tweet. I try to get it on Facebook, too.  This week I found $2 watermelons, $1.49 pomegranates, and 54c cans of soup stock.

Cheep Cheep!

Happy Ad Wednesday! (yes, again)

I’m going to have to change these posts to Happy Ad Wednesdays, due to unreliable mail, and the fact that while I appreciate my small, rabid fan base, you aren’t staying up super late on Tuesday to read these, but reading them Wednesday morning. So in the interest of not confusing people as to the day of the week, I’m calling it for Wednesday.

This week I’m adding some organic prices I think are good deals. I’m also considering tagging the Dirty Dozen (DD) and the Clean Fifteen (CF)  in this weekly post, so that if you’re interested in following those guidelines it’s easier.  Thus the organic apple listing for Sprouts, while the other apple listings are conventional. Post a comment if you think this would be helpful.

Sprouts is Pumpkin Manic this week, with a huge selection of pumpkin products. I love me some pumpkin, but at this point with Starbucks starting with it in August I have a hipster backlash moment and now I want to wait all the way until Thanksgiving when I have pie for any pumpkin at all.  If you’re embracing the pumpkin, hit Sprouts for a selection.

Fiesta and Sprouts lose the apple wars, with HEB again going for the 22 cent undercut and having cameo and gala apples for 77c. Apple Wars winner: HEB

Sprouts

beginning this week:

organic grape tomatoes, 1 pint           $1.98/ea

hass avocados                                       48c/ea

green bell peppers                                48c/ea

cucumbers                                            48c/ea

sweet potatoes                                      98c/lb

celery                                                     98c/ea

boneless skinless chicken thighs          $1.99/lb

organic gala apples                              $1.48/lb

peanuts (raw, roasted salted or un)      $1.99/lb

organic non-gmo tofu, 14oz.                  $1.49/ea

ending this week:

asparagus                                $1.49/lb

pineapples                                  49c/lb

tomatoes on the vine                   99c/lb

russet potatoes                            33c/lb

Fiesta

drum sticks, large bag           79c/lb (Fiesta limit. 99c/lb)

bone-in pork sirloin chops   $1.66/lb (Fiesta limit. $2.19/lb)

Bar-s bacon, 12oz.                                 $1.99/ea

limes                                                       5c/ea

Adolphus brand long grain rice, 2lb     $1.39 (limit 2)

cut or whole fairytale squash                  49c/lb

Randalls

boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs    $1.99/lb

(this is Randalls worst showing yet. and if you’ve read much, I’m usually a big Randalls apologist)

HEB

cameo and gala apples           77c/lb

extra large grapefruit                 77c/lb

Texas oranges, 3lb sack           $1.98/ea

organic broccoli bunch             88c/ea

organic leaf or romaine lettuce     88c/ea (note: from  the ad it is not clear if this is organic. the price has me thinking no, but it’s listed in a way that it could be. look closely if it’s important to you)

chicken drumsticks or thighs       $1/lb

There’s nothing overwhelmingly good this week. You could stock up on chicken, nobody was ever sad to have some chicken ready to toss in the crockpot once we get to turn the AC off.  Avocados will have me making guacamole and eating as much as I want on Saturday while we watch football. Does everyone make a bowl for themselves and one for everyone else? No? Just me, then. Cool. Let’s forget this little talk.

EDIT to add:  Careful shopping, Cheepsters!  For that $1/chicken legs or thighs, you’ve got to look at the package. They’ve got two brands at that price (at some HEBs) and one is enhanced with 12-15% solution, and one is not.  Hill Country Fare brand is the one you want to buy.

All the Meat, and Nothing but the Meat

Monday’s Grocery Theory post here, sneaking in just over the wire. So far Grocery Theory posts have introduced a ranking of Austin grocery stores, methods of storing when stocking up, the types of shopping we do and weekly planning.

This week I’ll be posting about meat.  Chicken, fish, beef, lamb, mutton, offal, what have you, this week we’re just going to call it all ‘meat’.  If you’re a vegetarian, this column will be useless to you, and all I can do is promise a similar discussion of vegetables sometime soon. Excepting beets, because holy cow those taste like dirt.

I see two extremes in the purchase of meat. On one side, there is purchasing meat that was sustainably, organically raised by farmers who treat their animals humanely and respectfully.   On the other end is purchasing meat that has been grown by a factory interested in maximizing a profit and that thinks of their product as a commodity.

There is a lot of middle ground, grey area, labeling misconception, and governmental regulation in-between and around those two extremes.  There is organic meat, natural meat, pesticide-free meat, local meat, solution-enhanced meat, free-range meat, grass-fed meat, organically fed meat, water-injected meat and probably a dozen more I haven’t listed.

How to decide what to purchase, when you’ve got more options and price-points than a brain can hold?  For produce, there’s the shortcut I try to follow, The Dirty Dozen, which you have likely read about.  Meat doesn’t have any such clear-cut line, with the exception of the rule about big fish having more mercury than other fish, so it’s good to limit intake of tuna and other large fish.  Other than that, we’re left floundering around (tip your waitresses, we’ll be here all week!).

Large grocers aren’t likely to help us much, as this Washington Post article shows. To sum up:  A grocery store chain decided  to start labeling their meat ‘USDA Graded’. Which seems ok when it’s a nice shiny blue sticker, I guess. But read that sticker, and it means that the USDA graded it, that’s all.  Doesn’t mean it’s Choice or Select, Prime or Dog Food, only that the USDA graded it. The USDA grades nearly all meat sold in the US, so that’s not really a useful label.  Given the store ordinarily sold Select, and had previously labeled packages that way, there’s a conclusion to be drawn, and I leave that as an exercise for you, Dear Reader.

Farmer’s Markets can help us a lot. You’re likely talking to a person integral to the care and butchering of the animal you’re taking home to eat, and like as not they’ll answer anything you want to know regarding the care and feeding of your meal-to be.

We all know the problem here, though. Sing it with me, ~~~Meat for a week from HEB, I say!, at the price  for just one day, at you, my lovely Farmer’s Market~~~. What, you didn’t know ~~~ meant sing? AND you don’t know that tune? I lament. Moving on.

So, somewhere, we have to find a happy middle. One that won’t break the bank, ruin our karma, increase our pesticide load, and will taste good.  Here’s how I break that down, to feel like I’m using our grocery dollars in the best way.

  • Whenever possible, I do buy meat at the farmers market. My budget hasn’t held that room in a while, but I have still purchased ground meat or soup bones, which are usually the least expensive cuts. If you’ve got a family that will eat kidneys/liver, you can sometimes get a deal on those, too. If you have a CSA, I know several in town have a meat option, and I personally have bought 1/4 and 1/2 a cow before. Those were great options, but require investment (for a CSA an ongoing commitment).
  • I never buy anything that’s been 12-15% ‘enhanced’ with a ‘solution’. If I want to brine something, I brine it at home, where I know what I’m doing. I don’t want to pay for water in my meat. Water is heavy and I’m paying by the pound.  This is NEVER in big print on the package, and you need to look. If it seems like a cheap price, there’s often a solution involved. Even ‘Natural’ on the label doesn’t mean there isn’t an injected solution, just that the ingredients in the solution are natural.
  • I buy the biggest, most minimally processed cuts I can. This means briskets, whole chickens, and whole fish.*
  • If certified organic meat is on sale to within a dollar or so of what I might usually pay, I consider it. Am I sure it will not end up leftovers? Can I freeze it and should stock up?
  • If any kind of meat is on sale for less than $1 a lb? I’m considering buying it. Because I have freezer space and that’s cheap. At $2 a lb, I’m thinking about how much I use it, and how likely organic is to come close. Often, I stock up at this price as well.

I thought I had something more complicated, but turns out, that’s it. Organic if it’s on enough of a sale, but really, other than that I shop the loss-leader meat.  I try not to stress about pesticides, because in meat they mostly reside in the fat which is trimmed for most meals.  Excepting bbq, and I’ll just have to ride that out, I guess. I don’t feel great about it, and wish it were different. Thinking about purchases is the first step though!

What are your priorities in meat purchases? Do you only buy organic? Where do you think  the best organic prices are? The whole chickens at Sprouts were the cheapest I’d seen in a while, but I haven’t been watching closely until recently. Is there a Farmer’s Market or CSA that you think is well-priced?

Related links:

This is a clickable list defining terms you might find on labels of meat or produce.  I found it interesting that all of these phrases: No Antibiotic Residues, Antibiotic Free, Drug Free, Chemical Free, No Antibiotic Growth Promotants are not allowed on meat products.

Because I found it while researching this article here’s the link to the USDA grading rules.  I find it interesting because I buy whole chickens often, but haven’t ever noticed the mark. Next time I’ll look.

* In the event I next buy fish, I’ll buy a whole one and report. But if I buy anything at the fish counter, I usually buy shellfish, and my only rule there is it’s got to be from the USA. I’m not even sure why, but I must have read it somewhere. And now so have you, so you should do that too.

Happy Ad Tuesday!

It’s our big day here at Cheepie, and what’s amazing is that the mailman brought the mail before 7pm, and the flyers were included. This hasn’t happened in months. I’ll assume the universe feels I’m a force for good.

There are a few things I want to define going forward, for simplicity’s sake.  From now on “Fiesta limit” will mean you can only buy two packages at that price with a $10 additional purchase requirement, and all others will be at the price I state.I think it makes sense to abbreviate this, and I’ll put it on a page of ‘Things to Know about Cheepie’ as soon as we’ve got more than this one thing.

I’ll also assume you’ve got a Randalls card if you’re going to head over there.  If you’ve got a card aversion, but want the card prices, I’m happy to give you my phone number to key in to get the discount–I get gas points and we bamboozle the Grocery Big Brother!  Generally, I do NOT find Randalls the cheapest on much.  But to get the deals you do need a card. They also have a program called ‘Just for U’ which has you go click on deals you want, and you get them in the store. About once a month they have a ‘free’ item, and I’ve gotten free laundry detergent and other things this way.

Randalls and Sprouts have apples this week at 99c/lb, but HEB wins at 77c/lb.

Apple Wars this week, Winner: HEB.

Fiesta

limes     15/$1

yellow onions     39c/lb

pork shoulder roast       $1.69/lb  (Fiesta limit. $2.89/lb)

chicken breast quarters  99c/lb  (Fiesta limit. $1.99/lb)

large Halloween pumpkins     $3.99/ea

Randalls

tomatoes on the vine    99c/lb

pork shoulder roast or country style ribs     $1.99/lb

BelVita Breakfast biscuits or Keebler Sandwich crackers  $1.67/ea

Francesco Rinaldi pasta sauce, 23.5-24oz      $1/ ea

HEB

granny smith, red/golden delicious apples    77c/lb

Texas grapefruit    5/$1

raspberries, 6oz.   $1.25/ea

County Post drumsticks    $1/lb

Sprouts

beginning this week:

asparagus     $1.49’lb

pineapples       49c/lb

tomatoes on the vine    99c/lb

russet potatoes  33c/lb

carving pumpkins     $3/ea  (only Fri-Sun)

pork or chicken sausage  $2.99/lb (only Fri-Sun)

ending this week:

honeycrisp apples  $1.49/lb

black seedless grapes  99c/lb

green cabbage  33c/lb

yellow onions  3lbs/$1

Stonyfeld Organic Yogurt, 32oz.   2/$5

lamb shoulder chops, grass fed   $2.99lb

Rosie Organic whole chicken    $2.99/lb

bulk raisins    $1.99/lb

vanilla macaroon granola      $1.99/lb

CM

bone-in rib eye, or cowboy steaks     $9.99/lb

I know, it’s odd that I’ve got Central Market up there. It’s because that’s their best price for those steaks, and  those steaks are good. They will freeze well with a vacuum sealer, and you can save them for when your parents come to dinner, or an anniversary, or a football Saturday where a grilled hunk of meat is the only way to assuage the pain of a loss. You could also just eat them tomorrow, because they’re tasty.

Fiesta has potatoes at 39c/lb, but that’s not the winner so I’m not listing it. It’s six cents, but I feel like the main list needs to be the lowest prices on that for the week. So I’m sticking to it. If you think there’s a more useful way to deal, let me know.

This week I’ll be getting limes, pork shoulder, apples and grapefruit. What do you think you’ll buy?

Cheep cheep!

The Weekly Meal Plan Meets Real Life

Growing up, Wednesday was Prince Spaghetti Day. If you are approximately my age, and grew up in approximately New Jersey, you might remember this ad:

And yes, for the purposes of this post, Boston is approximately Jersey.

In our house, though, Wednesday was bowling night, which meant it was Fun Food Night, which meant pizza, sub sandwiches from the little shop, or McD’s/Burger King/Arthur Treacher’s. Beyond bowling night, I don’t remember any other schedule of meals. My mom will likely comment here, saying, “How can you not know that Monday was meatloaf? And Friday was fishsticks?”  But I honestly don’t remember, while still knowing my mom’s meatloaf is still my favorite. I do remember dinner was every night at 6pm, which I cannot imagine pulling together. Mom, you rock!

I recently borrowed a book from a friend called The Family Dinner.  It’s written by Laurie David, and I was initially very skeptical of a book about family dinner being written by the wife of a famous funny guy who also has a full-time cook.  As one is (hell-o Jennifer Seinfeld, putting spinach in brownies isn’t the same as healthy eating!).

The whole book has a magazine feel to it, with many quotes from famous friends, and many, many text boxes saying fun things like, “Gardein, a new substitute for chicken, is made from soy, wheat, and peas and is a great source of protein.”  Once I started though, I kept on reading, because she was addressing something I worry about. My house rarely eats dinner all at the same time, and if we do it’s still rarely together. This led me to the weekly meal plan. I figured if I had a plan, I could save the time spent wondering what to make, and put it toward yelling at the kids to wipe the paint off the table and get it set for dinner.

This plan didn’t lead to 7 nights a week of family dinner, of course, and I can’t always stick to the plan. Having the general framework set up does help, though. I know that if I don’t have anything to put on a tortilla on Tuesday, I’ve got to shop or re-think.  If there is a meeting Thursday night, I know the kids need healthy supplements to the box of mac and cheese Big Sister will make.

Here’s my plan. First my basic framework for a dinner:  each dinner has a protein, starch, fruit, raw vegetable, cooked vegetable.  I try to make sure that there’s something each of us likes with each meal, but as the kids get older I worry less about this.  I don’t list the entire meal, because it’s flexible, depending on what’s on sale.

  • Mon: fried rice and soup/red beans and rice
  • Tue: Taco Tuesday
  • Wed: Prince Spaghetti Day
  • Thur: Refrigerator Buffet 
  • Fri: Pizza Night, or Meat on Grill

Monday and Thursday are the days I work on using leftovers. Refrigerator Buffet is simple–all the leftovers go out on the counter, and we fix plates. The kids love it, because they’ve got lots of choices, and I love it because it’s frugal and I don’t cook.  Mondays are also a leftover day, but upcycled.  I make fried rice with whatever meat and vegetables are left from a weekend of food, and use others to make a soup of some sort.  If the leftovers don’t seem like they’ll be good that way, they go in a pot with beans and get served on rice.  This way, I minimize waste as well as that urge to pick up take out!

If you’ve got a plan, post it in the comments. Unless you have a monthly plan. Don’t type that in, just give us a link. You have things to do.

Cheep Cheep!

Raisins? Oats? Roll ’em up!

Bulk raisins are on sale at Sprouts this week, and I’ve got a great way for you to use them.

With raisins on sale this week, and rolled oats last week, I thought I’d share one of our family staples. Despite my love of all hot breakfast cereals, none of my kids want anything to do with oatmeal. It’s possible I fed them too much when they were babies, since that powdery oatmeal was so easy to mix with water, formula or breastmilk and airplane right into baby faces. So now they’re all done with oatmeal, and yet, I buy rolled oats when they are on sale.

A friend posted this on Facebook years ago, and my kids still get happy when I roll them up. We’ve done many variations, but most commonly I go ahead and toss raisins in.  The original recipe my friend posted has several more variations–cranberry pistachio and almond joy, for example.

I’m listing the ingredients below in ‘parts’, because I find it easier to vary it when I think of it that way. The link above is more like an ordinary recipe. You can substitute any other ‘butter’ for peanut butter, just keep in mind if it’s runnier, because you’ll need less, and maybe less sweetener, too.   These keep well, I’ve heard, but I haven’t had any last long enough to find out.

  • 4 parts rolled oats
  • 1 part coconut flakes
  • 1 part peanut butter
  • 1 part ground flax seed
  • 1 part chocolate chips
  • 1 part other thing you like: almonds, raisins, sunflower seeds, things like that.
  • a bit less than 1 part honey or agave nectar, depending on what else you’ve added

You basically need enough honey to make the stuff stick together. So start with some, and stir it in. It’ll be ok, they’ll eat them no matter what, really.

I’m working up to having a variation of these always available to wean my kids off granola bars. At least until I start making granola bars.

Cheep Cheep!