Tuesday, December 2, 2008

meal planning and my kitchen staples

our November WAHM of the month mentioned how important it is for her to plan meals and go grocery shopping with a list in hand. i couldn't agree more, having been, for most of my adult life, one of those people who has to go to the store every time i want to cook dinner (sometimes even more than once). now that we are busier with work and parenting, and cost and nutrition have both moved up on our priority list, we try to sit down every weekend and make a menu-grocery list combination. when i am feeling adventurous, i look for inspiration from food & wine, real simple, and parents magazine. when i am more focused on cost-cutting, i sit down with the grocery store circulars and plan around what is on sale. i have also found that, in order to get help with the actual cooking part, i have to get hubby to sit down and work on the menu with me. otherwise, we either end up with a menu of all "my" recipes that he, of course, couldn't even try to duplicate or my selection of "his" recipes that he doesn't "feel like" making.

of course, the organized menu planning and grocery shopping don't always happen. so i also try to keep a few staples on hand that can be put together into a quick, easy and (moderately) healthy meal.
  • chicken, any cut, can be taken straight from the freezer and boiled and shredded. then you can saute it with taco seasoning, wrap it up and bake with enchilada sauce, or mix it in to a salad (some of my faves include cold peanut, chicken, cucumber and soba noodles and chinese chicken salad).
  • fish is also one of our staples because it thaws very quickly (10-15 minutes in cold water). we use salmon for pan-searing (try it with creamy dill sauce, honey and soy glaze, or a raspberry reduction). mahi mahi is great for fish tacos with mango salsa, and cod is good for curry (or use prepared sauce in a jar for a really quick meal).
  • boca burgers are frozen and can be prepared just as well in the microwave.
  • frozen skillet meals (try bertolli or bird's eye) are inexpensive (around $6-$10 for family size) and super fast and easy but often high in calories, fat and sodium, although i think they are still better than fast food. adding in frozen veggies or some greens (spinach, chard, etc.) is an easy way to make them healthier and more balanced.

we'd love to hear your favorite quick and easy dinners, especially those that can come out of the freezer or pantry when you're in a pinch.


Monday, December 1, 2008

budget-friendly gifts without going to the dollar store

There are some things that are great to buy at the dollar store. Bubbles, sidewalk chalk, stickers, coloring books... I'm sure there are more that I can't think of. One thing I don't think should come from the dollar store is gifts because you always get what you pay for. Money is tight this season for a lot of us and the temptation may be strong. Here are my ideas for meaningful gifts that don't cost much.

  • A book from the used bookstore. Possibilities include: your favorite classic novel, her favorite, a biography of someone she admires. The key is to put thought into it and choose something meaningful.
  • Put together a small photo album of an event or period of time that was special to the two of you and include a letter detailing your memories and why it was special to you.
  • Watch her kids. Not later, but now when she's busy with all her holiday preparations. Take it up a notch by helping the kids put together a dinner to freeze and bring home for another night. Take pictures of the kids working in the kitchen (proof that they can wash dishes?) and put in a small album to give mom. You can wrap the photos to put under the tree if you want her to have something to unwrap.
  • Give her a collection of recipes for all the dishes you make that she raves about and include a non-perishable specialty ingredient for one of the recipes. You could also wrap it with a small kitchen tool if the recipient doesn't have a fully-stocked kitchen.
  • Do you make any crafts that would make good gifts? This isn't always a budget gift, depending on your craft.

I believe the key to giving a great gift is thoughtfulness. Think about who the gift is for. What is she passionate about? How does she spend her spare time? Almost anything you'll come up with will have giftable options in many price ranges. It is a good idea to do your thinking far from a store, you don't want to limit your creativity by only considering what you see in front of you. Start now! It is very hard to use this approach for last-minute gifts. You can either spend time or money to come up with a great gift, but if you don't spend either you're stuck with the dollar store!