Monday, July 21, 2014

Meatless Monday Recipes

A while back I instituted Meatless Mondays at our house as a way to not only eat healthier, but to save money as well.  Meatless Mondays were hugely successful and no one seemed to be bothered by the lack of a meaty main dish.  Unfortunately, we ran into a snag when our collective schedules went berserk and we just started grabbing whatever was handy.  I plan on reinstating our Meatless Monday practice ASAP.  Here are a few of our favorite recipes:

Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells


I know what you're thinking, "Spinach?  My family will never eat that."  Trust me, they will not only eat it, they will love it and beg you to make it again.

Eggplant Parmesan


If you haven't tried eggplant, you should.  It's mild, but meaty and delicious!

Perhaps you're not into veggie dishes that are covered in tomato sauce and cheese. If that's the case, here are a few recipes for you:

Veggie Stir-Fry


This makes a really nice summer dish.  It's quick and easy and you can add whatever suits your family's tastes.

Portabella Mushroom Burger


Portabella mushrooms, like eggplant, are meaty.  They have a nice beefy flavor and lend themselves perfectly to burgers. Pair this with some sweet potato oven fries and you'll have a super tasty and healthy alternative to fast food! 

And for days when no one can really agree:

Personal Homemade Veggie Pizzas
You can use a premade crust, a mix, or a made-from-scratch crust for your pizza.  Use any sauce you like and then let the family members choose their toppings from an assortment.  We like mushrooms, spinach, peppers and even artichoke.  The pizzas cook up in minutes and everyone is happy!

Click here for more tasty veggie pizza recipes

Happy Monday!

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Would You Like Chips and a Drink?

I have recently embarked on a career as a freelance writer.  It's a bit of a challenge at times, but for the most part I enjoy it.  I certainly can't complain about getting paid to do something I've been doing for free for years.

There is, however, a certain soullessness to it.  Normally I write for myself and about the things I want.  Now I'm writing per someone else's specifications and instructions.  I'm given a recipe of sorts with the basic elements included and told to write a story within certain guidelines and in a predetermined length of time.

It sounds like a piece of cake, right?  It is a piece of cake.  A sad premade store bought cake with a generic "Happy Birthday" scrawled on the top in purple icing.

Wow, thanks... Who's Tracee?

Again, I'm not complaining.  This is part of the process of me getting to where I want to be.  I want to make a living as a writer, but for now that means cranking out these little formula stories for peanuts.  I'm building a reputation and a résumé to back it. 

It's still a bit spirit-killing after a while.  What I'm doing and what I want to do are about as far apart as a chef is from a Subway "sandwich artist."  The chef makes the menu based on the ingredients he decides and gathers.  The customer doesn't get to choose or substitute menu items. He eats what the chef prepares.  And he likes it. 

Oh, you're Vegan?  Foie gras it is.

The sandwich artist on the other hand just stands behind the counter and waits while the customer chooses everything from the bread to which kind of cheese and which veggies and how much salt.  It doesn't matter that the customer wants meatballs with American cheese and mayonnaise.  It's his choice and the sandwich maker's responsibility to give him what he wants and take his money. 

That's what I am right now, a literary sandwich artist.  Clients tell me what they want and when they want it and it's my job to put all the ingredients together in a way that makes some sort of sense.  I give them their product and they give me money.  It isn't a bad line of work and it's a means to an end.  I certainly don't want to do this forever, but I'll do my best while I'm working at it. 

Who ordered the "Bad Boy Rock Star Romance" with extra cheese and a hefty sprinkling of *UST?

I'm still writing for pleasure too, although I haven't had much time to actually write or type anything out.  There are lots of ideas floating around in my head, I just have to find a moment to work through them.  I know it's important for me to nourish myself, and so I've still been reading and formulating ideas for my own work.  And to be honest, freelancing is pretty good daily practice.  It's something I have to do almost every day in order to meet my deadlines, and that means I exercise my writing skills every day.  Not a bad habit for a writer.

I get a bit depressed sometimes because I have friends who are way ahead of me in the game.  They're having books published and doing readings and signings and I'm making the literary equivalent of a Cold Cut Combo.  I know I'll get there though.  I've taken a huge step just by putting myself and my work out there.  After years of hiding my scribbles in notebooks and in code-named computer documents, I have pieces out there in the world with my name on them.  That's something I never considered possible.  I'm learning that when I override my near-crippling fear of failure and take a chance I can do some pretty amazing things.  Sure, right now it's turkey on white bread with chipotle sauce, but not forever.  I won't always be the sandwich artist.  Some day I'll be the chef, and that'll be suh-weet.

*UST- Unresolved Sexual Tension

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Frugal Grocery Shopping for Real People

We've all seen the shows, articles and videos of the SUPER COUPON CLIPPER.  These people spend hours every day scouring newspapers and websites for coupon deals and then they take their stack of coupons to the store and buy $500 worth of baby wipes for 99 cents. Their pantries look like apocalypse bunkers, shelves stacked high with a hundred or so cans of baked beans that they picked up for half price.

Good thing Jeb down the street hoarded all those can openers.  He'll sell you one for $5,000.

This is not that.

There is a way to shop frugally that doesn't involve spending half your life cutting coupons out of newspapers and magazines.  This more active approach is also fun, like a treasure hunt. You never know what you're going to score!

First off,

Use a Smaller Local Grocer
Out of necessity my family is forced to buy some goods at the Big Box store. We mainly use it for things like paper products, personal care items (shampoo, toothpaste, etc.) and a few other things. 
For most of our grocery shopping, we use a local grocery store.  The one we shop is from a smaller chain and has a very "small town grocer" feel to it. The faces are all familiar, the employees know us, and the store itself is much easier to navigate than the soulless Big Box store.

I get paid in smiley buttons!

Get the Store Savings Card
It may seem like a hassle, but take five minutes and fill out the form and slap that little plastic card on your keychain.  This entitles you to weekly in-store savings without having to use coupons at all.  Usually, the items on sale change week to week, so there's always something new and useful to save a few cents on. I signed up to get email updates, so every week a new list of products comes to my inbox.  I can even print out a shopping list right from the site.
For our store, signing up for the savings club means special savings events as well. A few years ago, I scored a free twelve (12) pound turkey by spending a certain amount with my card before Thanksgiving.
Our store also has a special feature that hooks my card up electronically with my son's school's Box Tops program.  I don't even have to cut out the Box Tops.  When the products are scanned at the store, a certain amount is donated directly to my son's school from the company!

I know it's on here somewhere...

Hunt for the Red Tags
At your store the clearance tags may be green or yellow or aquamarine.  At ours they are bright red, and for my husband and me, this is the most fun part of the frugal shopping experience.  It's kind of like hunting Easter eggs; you scan the area carefully and when you see a red-tagged item you toss it in your basket.

What? It was on sale.

Our store usually gathers produce items, dairy, and even meats that will soon be past the sell-by date and sells them at a lower (often MUCH lower) price in order to get rid of them.  I've scored a tray of peaches for around two bucks, Brie for $1.99, and Greek yogurt cups for 45 cents each.  The Holy Grail for us though, is the red-tagged milk.  It's a great shopping day when you can get a $4 dollar gallon of milk for a buck simply because it's one day away from its sell-by date.
The only caution for red-tagged item is the shelf life.  Since the items are so near the sell-by dates they'll need to be used or frozen quickly, so don't get overzealous and buy more than you can use.  If they go bad, you haven't saved any money at all.

Make Friends with the Meat and Deli Workers
This is where having a small local store really comes in handy.  Instead of an ever changing cast of characters behind the counters, you usually have a handful of well-known faces in these areas.  This makes it easier to form relationships and even partnerships with the folks sorting the chickens and slicing the ham. Why is that important?  Making friends with the butcher and the deli worker can often get you an "in" when it comes to sale or specialty items.  For my husband and me, it means extra bits stuck here and there because we're loyal customers. 

What do you mean, "Do I like the movie Gangs of New York"?

Take a Chance on the Store Brand
There are some things I will not buy in generic brands, but for plenty of other items the store brand is just as good, if not better than the name brand version. Canned goods are one example.  I usually buy the store brand version of canned soups, pasta for the kiddos, tuna, and broths. They are much cheaper, but still good quality. Store brand baking goods are usually fine as well: flour, sugar, spices. For those items, the store brand offers a good product at a fraction of the name brand cost.

Just as nasty as Kool-Aid, but for half the price!

Hit Up the Dollar Store for Bread
I know what you're thinking. "What?!"  But trust me, this has been a HUGE money saver for my family.  We like our whole wheat bread, and since my husband and the kids take their lunches to school and work, we go through an insane amount of bread.  Rather than resorting to sub-standard, or heaven forbid, white bread, *shudder* we discovered that our local dollar store carries name brand high quality bread in limited supply.  About twice a week, a bread truck brings a small quantity of unsold or left-over bread from suppliers and stores.  It's completely fresh and nowhere near the sell-by date and it's $1.  We're talking three and four dollar loaves of whole wheat bread here. For one (1) dollar!  My husband and I usually buy several loaves at a time and stick them in the freezer.  When one loaf starts getting low, we take another out of the freezer and let it thaw out overnight and it's ready for the next day. 
There are plenty of other grocery goods you can buy at the dollar store, but you really have to carefully weigh the price with the amount you're getting.  Sometimes it's worth it, sometimes it's not.  The bread is definitely an unbeatable buy.

I'm sure it works just fine...