100 Days on a Budget Series

Our first “100 Days of Real Food” pledge brought lots of unexpected experiences and also lessons learned. What was originally created to draw attention to how dependent people have become on highly processed food actually ended up being a life-changing event for us. I didn’t expect our pledge to have such a big impact on me personally, but in the end, I am glad it did. And that’s actually the reason why I am still here blogging about real food … long after the original 100 days!

Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

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Now while most agreed that real, unprocessed, organic, local, whole foods sounded great, quite a lot of readers also implied that it couldn’t be done without breaking the bank. So we of course had to prove all those skeptics wrong, which is why in October 2011 we began our “100 Days of Real Food on a Budget” pledge. We let the blog readers vote to determine our weekly budget of $125 for our family of four. (Note that on FULL food stamp benefits we would have received $167/week.) This real food on a budget pledge proved to be even more difficult than the first pledge at times, but we successfully completed the challenge in January 2011 … whew!

Budget Day 1: Getting Organized

October 10, 2010

Wow, day 1 is barely over, and I already feel like I’ve proven that organization is key when it comes to budgeting! I spent almost an hour this morning figuring out what we had on hand (too many greens), what meals I could make with those items, and what exactly I needed to buy.  The days of going to the store with a partial grocery list are definitely over, but we did end up with some tasty lasagna tonight as a result. More on that later though, first things first … the votes are in! And based on everyone’s feedback, it looks like we will be attempting to eat real food on a budget of $125/week. It was a surprisingly close race between $125 and $150 and I appreciate everyone who shared their opinion (but especially those who wanted me to have more money to spend! LOL).

So here are the rules:

  • We have $125/week to buy food for our family of four, which includes my husband, our two daughters (ages 3 and 5), and me of course. This budget will cover our food from Monday through Sunday each week, and if for some strange reason I end up accidentally going over budget it will be deducted from the following week (yikes!).
  • What’s not in the budget:
    • Eating out: We will have $20/week for eating out and since most fast-food restaurants don’t fall under the realm of “real food,” I am estimating that the four of us could eat at a restaurant maybe two or three times a month. I will be tracking and sharing the outcome of this category.
    • Household products: These expenses will not be part of this project, and will cover things like household cleaners, paper products, and alcohol. No one needs to know how much we spend on our alcohol, which helps us get through these pledges in the first place. :)
    • Garden Harvest: I already spent about $30 on seeds and plants for the fall, which just about filled up 6 out of our 7 raised garden beds. Any veggies we harvest ourselves will be considered free!
    • Pantry/Freezer Stock: With the exception of meat and seafood (which can obviously be a big expense) we can use any ingredients, pre-made frozen meals, canned goods, or other items that we already own at no charge. I will also make a point to restock some of these items as I go, but I do believe an important part of budgeting is learning to use what you have on hand!
    • Travel and Entertaining: If we are out of town or entertaining guests we will obviously be under different circumstances. Therefore, food that falls under these categories will not be part of our weekly budget nor will it be tracked for the blog.
  • As far as what we can eat … we are going to stick to our original real food “rules” from our first pledge as much as possible, but we will have the ability to waiver on occasion since the focus this time is on how much we spend.
Three bags of different varieties of lettuce.

So back to my morning … as I mentioned, organization and planning are key, but I still have a long way to go before I master this whole real food on a budget thing. I started off by figuring out what produce we have on hand and pictured above, you will see the overwhelming amount of greens that I uncovered (from some recent CSA boxes). And I am not kidding when I tell you that I have no idea what the three items in the bags are or how I should cook them for that matter. I am also not kidding when I say I don’t even think I like most greens and my daughters are pretty much in the same boat as me on that one. So after that fun discovery, I made a list of things I can make this week:

Monday: Swiss Chard Lasagna with a side of Green Beans (mission accomplished!)

Tuesday: Leftovers and a Salad (for the adults)

WednesdayBell Pepper Fajitas (I will attempt to throw some of the greens into the pepper mix)

Thursday: Butternut Squash Soup and Zucchini Bread or Biscuits

Friday: Eggplant gratin with some sort of meat (if we can afford it by Friday!)

Two plastic containers with mixed greens on a counter.

I am not sure what I will end up doing with all of the greens that are not accounted for … maybe give them to my neighbor or just force-feed them to my husband? I will do a lot for this new budget, but eating some sort of mustard or other greens on a daily basis is not one of them! Anyway, I also made a grocery list for Earth Fare this morning so I could get what I needed to make these meals, and I set a goal to not spend more than $60. I came up with this number because it would allow me to save $30 for our milk bill (we get 4 gallons delivered every Thursday morning … I know you are wondering how long this will last on our new budget!) and about $30 for the Farmer’s Market on Saturday. Plus, it is always good to have a few bucks you haven’t accounted for yet, which, unfortunately, already came in handy.

I did my shopping and stuck to my detailed list, but while I was checking out I seriously had to give the cashier back at least half a dozen items that I couldn’t afford to buy (mental note: bring calculator next time). After we got through that little embarrassing moment my bill came to $67, which I was okay with. I used to very easily drop $200 or more at Earth Fare so I feel like today was A LOT of progress for me. I had to suppress my desire to impulse shop many times and let me tell you, it was not fun! Later in the week I will share the list of what I bought for the $67 and an update on how our little weekly meal plan is going so far!

Budget Day 3: Sacrifices

October 7 2010

I am already talking about sacrifices, and it is only the third day! I was always confident we could do the first 100 Days of Real Food pledge, but to be honest, I am doubting this budget pledge often.

  • Exhibit A: The amount of raspberries you can have in your cereal when you are on a $125/week budget.
  • Exhibit B: The beverage you have to (at times) force your children to drink when you run out of milk and can’t afford to buy more yet.
  • Exhibit C: The one super cheap fruit that I will always be able to afford on this budget, but that I am already getting tired of eating.
A bowl of cereal with one raspberry, a glass of water, and a banana.

I guess I really shouldn’t be complaining about my one raspberry. I wanted to buy a whole $4.99 container of organic raspberries at the store, but it was one of the many things I had to put back when I saw how much my bill was adding up to be. Then I was outside checking on my garden when I realized there were 5 ripe raspberries on our raspberry bush! It was very exciting until I remembered it would only be fair for me to share them with my family. That darn family. So anyway, only one lonely raspberry for me even though I love all things berry when it comes to my granola cereal in the morning!

So in addition to raspberries, some of the other things I had to put back when I was checking out at Earth Fare the other day were mushrooms, an avocado, some almonds, cream cheese, and about half a bag of grapes. Yes, I only bought half of the grapes. I also had a few things on my list I didn’t even attempt to buy once I started adding things up in my head. This included espresso, jelly (I figured we must have some left in the fridge somewhere), celery, parmesan cheese, and fontina cheese. I needed the fontina cheese for our lasagna the other night, but just had to do without!

One more negative comment then I promise I will be nice! Since everyone obviously knows the pros of “budgeting” I thought I would share some of the cons I have observed so far …

  • You can’t stock up or buy things on an impulse (just in case you might need them) without going over budget, which means you have to go to the store more often.
  • You may end up with a lot less variety in your diet since you have to stick to the cheap stuff (like the lovely banana pictured above).
  • You might be forced to become a vegetarian.
Bowl of cooked veggies for fajitas.

Okay, now that I got that off my chest, I do have something nice to say. Even though I couldn’t buy an avocado (which all of us love) or fresh mushrooms like I wanted for our fajitas tonight they did end up being delicious. I got lucky again as I did with the raspberries and “found” some dried mushrooms in my pantry that have been in there a long, long time. After a little warm water and TLC, they were reconstituted and made a great addition to our fajita mix (pictured above). I have a feeling that the more I use up these little “finds” in my pantry the harder this budget thing is going to get.

So as promised, this is what my $67 got me at Earthfare the other day … almost all of it was organic by the way:

  • Raw Cashews $7.90
  • Pumpkin Seeds $3.35
  • Coffee Beans $8.99
  • Unsalted Butter $4.29
  • Cheddar Cheese $4.89
  • Monterey Jack Cheese $3.39
  • Ricotta Cheese $5.99
  • Cheese Sticks $4.39
  • Applesauce Squeeze $3.29
  • Unsweetened Coconut $2.79
  • Whole-Wheat Pretzels $4.39
  • Bananas! $1.74
  • Baby Carrots $2.00
  • Ginger Root $0.21
  • Green Grapes $1.45
  • Leeks $3.83
  • Yellow Onions $3.46

The total (with tax) was $67.68. And on a positive note, the milk man comes tomorrow … yay!

Budget Day 6: Five Bucks Left

October 9, 2010

Okay, the first week is almost over, I am not broke (yet), and we have enough food to push us through to Monday when I get our next $125! In some ways, I think the first week could be the hardest because I am not that good at budgeting yet, but I also think it could be considered the easiest since my kitchen is still somewhat stocked from our non-budget days.

Here is the breakdown of my first week’s expenditures …

  • As reported on day 3, Earth Fare $67.68
  • Milk Delivery $30.24 (Yes, I already know how everyone feels about this one!)
  • Harris Teeter $0.70 (I needed a lemon to make hummus)
  • Farmers Market $21.00 (pictured below is what I got today for this amount)
Fresh produce on the counter from the farmers market.

I have five bucks left and plan to take the girls apple-picking today and let them buy $5 worth of apples!

There have also been some lessons learned and changes I plan to implement going forward (some of which were suggestions from blog readers so thank you!) …

  • I am going to try frozen berries in my cereal since fresh are SO expensive. A reader made a great point that frozen berries are probably better than out-of-season berries from another continent. Even Michael Pollan said that there is nothing wrong, and a lot right with frozen veggies/fruit.
  • I printed out a wallet-size card of the dirty dozen/clean fifteen list. I will use this as a guide to help me decide when organic produce is really necessary.
  • I love the idea of shooting for one “cheap week” a month where we hardly spend any money on meals, and instead stock up on staples like eggs, butter, honey, flour, crackers, etc.
  • I am going to figure out the coupon book schedule for Earthfare. I am also going to see if they have some sort of sales ad that I can plan our meals around.
  • I also plan to check out Bi-Lo since a few people said they occasionally have some surprisingly good deals on organic items.
  • I am going to continue doing everything I can to try to keep our super good local milk that all four of us absolutely love!!

We did pretty good sticking to our dinner plan this week except for one evening. After all the cooking I did every night I just didn’t have it in me to experiment with making eggplant gratin on Friday. So I decided to forgo the eggplant altogether and instead boiled some pre-made butternut squash ravioli that I had in our freezer. I am going to give the eggplant another shot tonight and probably surprise the girls with some homemade whole-wheat pizza. I will make the pizza sauce with some of the tomatoes that I got from the Farmer’s Market today. So far so good on this new budget!

Budget Day 8: An Unfortunate Visit to Wal-Mart

October 12, 2010

I tried shopping for food at Wal-Mart today, and it was almost a complete waste of my time. I knew they carried Stoneyfield Organic yogurt so I assumed they must at least have a couple of organic cheese options and maybe even some other inexpensive organic stuff. With the exception of some organic brown rice (which I didn’t buy since it wasn’t quick cooking) and some organic Pam cooking spray, the yogurt was just about the only thing that made it worth going there. And who wants to traverse through a football field size store to save a measly buck or two on three things? I was actually a little relieved I don’t have to go back anytime soon!

I did have a list today though, and due to time constraints, I had to do my best at selecting some things that we really needed. Here’s what I got (pictured):

Groceries from Wal-Mart on a table that include coffee, bananas, cheese, Triscuits, brown rice, yogurt, sour cream, and cooking oil.
  • Large box of Triscuits $3.50
  • Quick cooking brown rice $1.44
  • Starbucks espresso roast ground coffee $6.98
  • Wal-Mart brand Monterey Jack cheese $3.58
  • Organic Pam olive oil spray $2.98
  • Sour cream $0.88
  • 6 bananas $1.48
  • 1 gallon of canola oil $5.98 (I usually buy organic, but this was a good deal)
  • Large organic plain yogurt $3.24

I do admit that the espresso and oil were much better deals than what I would find elsewhere, although the alternatives at a place like Earth Fare would be organic or at least “All Natural”. There were also several other things I needed, but I decided to wait until tomorrow when I can get the organic version. I just have a hard time pumping too many pesticide-infused things into my precious daughters, even if it is not on the dirty dozen list! Here’s what I hope to be able to afford from Earth Fare tomorrow …

  • Frozen peas
  • Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese
  • Dried dates (I am going through some serious chocolate withdrawal until I get these)
  • Celery
  • Parsley
  • Grapes and some other fruit
  • Ground meat (beef or turkey)
  • Tomatoes (only if they are local)
  • Peanut Butter
  • I also heard the chicken is buy one get one free … we will see how much $ I have left!

I figure if I need to save $30 for the milk we love (which is delivered on Thursday morning) and about $20 – $30 for farmer’s market veggies on Saturday then I can spend about $35 – $45 at Earth Fare tomorrow. That’s even less than last week … I don’t know if it is possible for me to leave there with only spending 40 bucks! I also worked on our dinner list for the week. My husband is out of town on business for a few days so nothing too fancy …

Sunday: Last night we had an egg omelet, baked sweet potatoes, and sautéed swiss chard (which the girls and I tried, but did not like!)

Monday: Quesadillas (with leftover cooked bell peppers and onions from fajitas last week … this is why I needed the Monterey Jack Cheese today!)

Tuesday: Spaghetti and meatballs with green beans

Wednesday: Leftovers (hopefully)

Thursday: Kids eat free at Earthfare night (and my husband will be gone)!

Friday: Chicken Soulvakis with chicken from stock I need to make this week too, and maybe some roasted butternut squash

In other news, I would love to meet those in the Charlotte area at the Hillbilly Produce Fall Festival this Saturday! It is from 1:00 – 3:00 P.M., and I am going to have a table set up so I can chat with people about eating real food. And if anything, just stop by for some free samples from several local farms (including Baucom’s Best and Grateful Growers) and to listen to the Bluegrass Band that will be there.

Also, I figured why not combine real food with some exercise, so the weekend after that I am running in the Brookhaven 5K in honor of our friend’s son Jake Pritchard. He is 6-years-old and received a heartbreaking diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy a couple of years ago. Our dear friends (his parents) do an amazing job of organizing this annual race, which raises money for finding a cure. It just breaks my heart every time I think about it so I of course want to do anything I can to help them. Which is why I started a little fundraising page (http://tinyurl.com/2dzdot6)! I am only about halfway to my goal of raising $300 and would absolutely love your support if you are interested in making a small donation. Every last dollar counts!!

Budget Day 9: A Change in Plans and Earthfare

October 13, 2010

Homemade quesadillas with whole-wheat tortilla.

You know how sometimes you make a plan and then barely stick to it? I think that is going to be the case with our dinner plan this week. We did have the omelets on Sunday and the quesadillas (pictured above) made with leftover sweet potato and fajita ingredients on Monday as scheduled, but I am pretty sure the rest of the week is going to be up in the air (which at this point is just fine with me). You see, I accidentally spilled an entire glass of red wine on my laptop last night so I am officially in a “go with the flow” type of mood for the rest of the week!

Today started off on a much better foot than yesterday with my morning visit to Earthfare. I know I am getting a lot of comments about trying new stores (and I realize Wal-Mart was a poor choice yesterday), but my latest plan is to try a new place each week. So next week might be Trader Joe’s or Bi-Lo, and then the week after that maybe Harris Teeter. I just don’t have the funds (or time) to do more than one new store in a week. So not to worry … I will eventually take my Earthfare blinders off so I can see if there is anything else good out there!

After my frustrating experience at Wal-Mart yesterday (partly due to two tired and hungry and cold children who both had lots to complain about), when I walked into Earthfare by myself today I felt like singing … aaaaahhhhhhh!! There’s something to be said for knowing what the options are and where just about everything is located in a grocery store. So in no time at all, I spent my $45 that I had budgeted for the trip … and I didn’t have to put anything back this time (like on budget day 3)! I wish I could credit it to the calculator I swore I would bring, but it was actually just sheer luck. And I kind of wondered if I really am capable of leaving Earthfare only $45.70 poorer, why have I been spending so much money there all these months! This is what I got (all of which was organic or “All-Natural”) …

Groceries from Earthfare that include celery, dates, peanut butter, cheese, chicken breasts, frozen peas, brown rice crackers, grapes, pears, and parsley.
  • Dried pitted dates $3.55
  • Peanut butter (with 1 ingredient) $3.17
  • Mozzarella cheese (to fuel my obsession with caprese salads) $4.00
  • Parmesan cheese $6.24
  • Cheddar cheese $4.89
  • Cream cheese $2.89
  • 2.10 lbs local chicken breasts (with a buy 1 lb get 1 lb free coupon)! $5.49
  • Frozen peas (oops they didn’t make the picture) $2.00
  • Brown rice crackers $3.49
  • Celery $1.97
  • 1 LB of grapes $2.36
  • Italian parsley $1.49
  • 2 pears $2.66

I do want to note a couple of things about my purchases. The brown rice crackers were a new item we’ve never tried before. My neighbor told me about them and they are 100% whole-grain with no junk in them (woohoo!). And my daughters love them. I am not sure if it is because it is something “new” and exciting or if they just like them, but whatever the reason it is fine with me!

Secondly, I learned that if you shop at a store as nice as Earthfare and buy something as expensive as all-natural Parmigiano Reggiano ($15.99/LB) they are willing to custom cut a small piece for you so you can afford it. I agree it might not make sense for me to buy such expensive cheese on a tight budget, but my family heritage is Italian and that is the way we roll. No green canisters of powdery cheese substances are allowed in this house!

So far I’ve given up fresh berries and most desserts that we used to occasionally eat (like homemade ice cream), but if I can continue having things like our good local milk (which you are probably tired of hearing about), good cheese, and our nut-filled granola cereal I might just survive! Later in the week, I will post the rundown of what we end up eating for dinner every night, but with my husband gone and all that chicken on hand, I am thinking chicken nuggets might be in our future (probably sautéed in non-organic canola oil—more on that later!).

Budget Day 12: A Real Happy Meal

October 15, 2010

Kids "Happy Meal" bags from Earthfare.

I discovered what should truly be called a “Happy Meal” at Earthfare last night. The only thing is, I have no idea why it took me so long to figure this one out! Not only did the organic real food meal that came in a fun little bag complete with a prize at the bottom make my daughters (and me) very happy, but since kids eat free on Thursdays it only cost $7.59 for all three of us to eat dinner there! And not to mention, I had printed Earthfare’s weekly “free” coupon so with our purchase (that had to be at least $5) I also got a free pineapple. Now that is a freaking deal! Especially when we budgeted $20/week for the four of us to eat out.

In addition to their kid-oriented meals, they also had a complimentary balloon artist providing entertainment! Forget the frosties … I told my daughters if they ate all of their dinner they could get a balloon. For their meal, they each chose a grilled cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread, applesauce, and white milk (with a little help from mommy). My 5-year-old also chose carrots with ranch dressing and my 3-year-old had raisins with her meal. Everything was organic from what I could tell and free of course!!

This outing was the perfect end to what felt like a long week with my husband gone on a business trip. Making all of this real food and cleaning up afterward really is a lot harder when I don’t have his help … because yes, when my husband is home he does help me with that kind of stuff! I should really plan better and not make labor-intensive meals when he is gone, but somehow it never seems to work out that way.

A plate of egg salad, crackers, celery with peanut butter & raisins, and a slice of cantaloupe.

On Tuesday night I made chicken nuggets with whole-wheat breadcrumbs out of some of the chicken I bought earlier that day. And I thought why not make it an extra special meal for my girls so I made some homemade whole-wheat macaroni and cheese and a side of green beans to go with it. They scarfed down so much of this meal that they pretty much ruined my plan for leftovers!

So on Wednesday night without any leftovers or wanting to make another big mess I just put together a very hodgepodge meal with items that we had on hand. I had some Caprese salad, and as you can see in the picture, we also had egg salad, crackers, celery with peanut butter & raisins (ants on a log), with some South Carolina cantaloupe I bought last weekend with the one dollar I had left after apple picking. I just want y’all to know I don’t make fancy meals just because I know I will be taking a picture of it for the blog. This is the kind of stuff we eat around here …picture or not!

For breakfast, we’ve been enjoying lots of our beloved granola, and I also made some banana pancakes last weekend. For lunch, it seems like we’ve been making a lot of smoothies lately to supplement other stuff like PB&J or some form of a “roll-up” (which is whatever we can find to roll up inside a whole-wheat tortilla). Today I actually made what tasted like a “pina colada smoothie” with my free pineapple from Earthfare. I put in the yogurt, milk, and bananas (to sweeten the plain yogurt) like I usually do and then added some shredded unsweetened coconut and lots of pineapple. It was good, and if it wasn’t the middle of the day, I would’ve thrown in some rum for the adults!

After Wal-Mart, Earthfare, and our milk delivery this week, I now have $21 (of our $125 budget) left that I was saving for local produce. Although, instead of getting produce from the Matthews Farmer’s Market like I usually do, I am going to spend it at Hillbilly Produce when I am there tomorrow at their festival! They also sell locally raised meat from some of our favorite vendors so it is almost like a farmer’s market of their own except on a much more convenient schedule (they are open every day of the week). I will have a table set up from 1:00 – 3:00 P.M. at the festival to chat with people about eating real food, so if you are in the Charlotte area please stop by and say hello!

Budget Day 15: Hillbilly Produce and Harris Teeter

October 19, 2010

Boxes of apples, watermelon, sweet potatoes, broccoli, meat, and some nuts from the Hillbilly Produce in North Carolina.

Guess how much I spent at Hillbilly Produce on those two big boxes of local apples (all of which have some sort of small bad spot or mark)? One dollar each!! So two bucks for all of those apples, which leads me to my next question. How much do you think I paid for everything in the picture? $14.75! I actually came in under budget and got more than I expected (including some ground pork) … and everything I bought was local. Now that is a good deal, and I love good deals these days.

I had about $6 left after that purchase on Saturday and also some change left from the week before. I somehow managed to spend almost every last penny of that at Harris Teeter later that day. I picked up some organic whole-wheat flour, raisins, and bananas. So here is how things totaled up last week (ending on Sunday )…

  • Wal-Mart: $30.66
  • Earthfare: $45.70
  • Milk Delivery: $27.97
  • Hillbilly Produce: $14.75
  • Harris Teeter: $6.55

This week started today with another lovely dose of $125, and I decided to try to do most of my shopping at Harris Teeter. I was annoyed that (with the exception of 1 package of string cheese) they did not have a single organic cheese option (much less grass-fed cheese). And I also really struggled with my tomato selection. I needed something to make spaghetti sauce with and originally thought about getting a can of crushed tomatoes.

Harris Teeter has a decent line of store-brand organic stuff, but the canned goods are just packed full of way too much sodium. And I swore I would never buy fresh tomatoes again unless they were from the farmer’s market, but I suddenly found myself back in produce staring at the tomatoes (which were conventional but did have a tag that read “Local N.C.”). So it came down to a can of sodium-filled precooked organic tomatoes or “fresh” so-called local conventional tomatoes (that may or may have not been ripened with ethylene gas like most grocery-store tomatoes). You can see what I reluctantly purchased below. Here is a list of everything else I bought today for a total of $33.07, and all but 4 things were organic (the tomatoes, cheese, fruit leathers, and Triscuits) ….

Groceries from Harris Teether that includes mayonnaise, Triscuits, dates, bananas, tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, garlic, and cheese.
  • Mayonnaise $4.89
  • Triscuits $3.49 (on sale)
  • 2 Lb bag flour  $2.99
  • Dried dates  $5.49
  • Fruit leathers   $1.38
  • Bananas  $0.67
  • Roma tomatoes $2.14
  • Garlic  $0.50
  • Carrots $1.49
  • Mushrooms $2.99
  • Butter $4.39
  • Cheddar cheese $2.00 (on sale)

Now, I still plan to go to my beloved Earthfare tomorrow for a few things that I just won’t buy anywhere else (like seafood). But, if I reserve money for milk, the farmer’s market, a whole chicken for later this week, and sandwich bread from Great Harvest (which I am now out of) that means I can only spend about $15 – $20 at Earthfare tomorrow … yikes! Here is our dinner plan for the week …

  • MondaySpaghetti with about ½ lb. of ground pork cut with a lot of mushrooms, carrots, green bell pepper, and celery
  • Tuesday: Some sort of seafood with an apple/sweet potato side item and some greens out of our garden
  • Wednesday: Matzo ball soup (after making chicken stock)
  • Thursday: Something with leftover chicken from Wednesday
  • Friday: Don’t know yet …

Our fridge was feeling pretty empty before my purchases today, but I did manage to come up with some chili for dinner last night. I used a ½ lb. of the ground pork that I got from Hillbilly Produce as well as some black beans and cans of diced tomatoes I found in my pantry. Lots of you have suggested I start using some beans (even though I am not a big fan), and I am trying! I also had some whole grain cornmeal in the freezer, which made for a nice side of cornbread! The chili was delicious (if I do say so myself), and I seriously cannot believe we are making this budget thing work on week 3 and counting ….

Homemade chili in a bowl with a side of cornbread.

Budget Day 17: Yet Another Change in Plans

October 19, 2010

Sautéed flounder, baked sweet potato, applesauce, and a whole-wheat biscuit on a plate.

Once again my weekly dinner plan got a little off-track. You would think that if I am the one making the plan I could at least stick to it! I wanted to make whole-wheat matzo ball soup tonight, but after making pasta for our spaghetti on Monday I was left with only 1 egg. I can’t exactly make matzo balls without enough eggs, and I refuse to buy grocery store eggs (even if they organic)! But, up until today, everything else went (mostly) to plan. Pictured you will see our sautéed flounder, baked sweet potato, applesauce, and whole-wheat biscuit dinner from last night. I agree that 3 of 4 items being almost the exact same color does not make the most attractive dish, but as I have said before … the food we eat around here is reality and not always something fancy just because I will be blogging about it!

I got the flounder at Earthfare yesterday when I was there spending a little more than I was supposed to (oops). That doesn’t mean I am going over budget for the week, I just had to reallocate things a little. I was only supposed to spend $15 – $20, but here is what I actually spent $25.53 on …

  • Monterey Jack cheese $4.89
  • Brown rice crackers $3.99
  • Ground ginger $2.98
  • Cut up honeydew melon $1.14
  • Red grapes $2.44
  • 2 lemons $1.98
  • 1 onion $1.57
  • ½ lb. Flounder $6.04
Groceries from Earthfare that include flounder, an onion, lemons, honeydew, grapes, cheese, whole-wheat bread, brown rice crackers, and ground ginger.

I was planning to stop at Great Harvest to pick up some honey whole-wheat sandwich bread after Earthfare, which is where things got reallocated. I usually buy 2 loaves and throw one in the freezer (so I only have to go there every other week), but instead, I could only spend $5 on one loaf after overspending at Earthfare. Having to go back next week would be inconvenient, but of course not the end of the world. I had a pretty nice surprise at the bread store though. I use their frequent buyer card, which allows you to get a free loaf for every 10 that you buy. So just as I had my best “feel sorry for me” look on my face (since I could not afford to spend more than five measly dollars there) I realized that after my purchase I would be due for a free loaf! I have never been so excited about getting a free loaf of bread in my life! Once you are on a tight budget, it is amazing how much you appreciate the little things.

On another note, I was watching a little video of my girls that I took one morning in October of last year. After doting on how much they’ve changed I started to zone in on what they were eating for breakfast. I was trying to figure out what box of cereal (that I surely had not read the ingredients of) I could have possibly been feeding them. I also watched myself in the video mention something in a very lighthearted tone about Halloween candy. I still do miss being able to feel carefree about what the four of us (and everyone else in the world) are/is eating. I hate to say it, but whoever said “ignorance is bliss” sure did know what they were talking about.

But, at the same time, I had to remind myself that in the video Sienna was only a month or so away from getting sick with a bad cold that flared up her asthma. And the wheezing that occurred with that particular virus did not get better with the first round of antibiotics … it actually got worse. So from April 2009 (when she got her first case of bronchitis that triggered the start of her asthma) to the end of last year, we had to use her nebulizer on 4 different occasions to treat her wheezing. Then came the day at the beginning of this year that we cut out processed foods and refined ingredients and guess how many times her wheezing has flared up since then? None. So I guess this is really about a little give and take … you don’t have to ask me twice to give up my carefree feeling about what we are eating in exchange for a carefree feeling about the health of my children!!

Budget Day 19: Slim Pickings

October 23, 2010

I am just being honest here … it feels like we have absolutely NO food in our house. We are somehow still surviving and managing to find things to eat, but man is it desolate. It usually gets down to slim pickings by the end of the budget week, but this time it already started feeling this way on Thursday (with 3 more days to go!). I think it is especially noticeable this time because we are out of some key staples like eggs, cheese, and chicken broth. It seems like whenever I am in a bind my go-to meals are things like quesadillas, quiche, scrambled eggs, pizza, or soup, and it is tough to make those things with so many missing ingredients!

A plate of bread/nut stuffing, butternut squash gratin and some fresh greens.

So last night I struggled to think of a meal (since my matzo ball soup plan got messed up due to my poor planning), and I ended up making some bread/nut stuffing, butternut squash gratin, and some greens from our garden. The stuffing had a good flavor, but it was a little dry. The greens were okay for greens. And the butternut squash was AWFUL! None of us liked it and it even provoked my 3-year-old’s (very well-rehearsed) gag reflex. I am not quite sure what I am going to do with the leftovers … maybe make a facial mask out of it if I can somehow stand the smell.

After dinner, I had the daunting task of preparing my kindergartner’s lunch for the next day. Oh, the cheap and easy cafeteria school lunch has never been so tempting. But, I did not give in! I felt like I could make a good lunch if I just had some cheese so I asked my husband to pick up “cheap” cheese from the grocery store. I think I may have even said “the cheapest” … at least that’s how I remember it.

Now, when someone asks you to pick out something cheap do you think that means spending the least amount of money possible or buy what appears to be the best value? Just curious because my husband not only came home with a huge double-size block of cheddar that cost $4 … but it was orange! I haven’t bought orange cheese in 8 months because cheese is not supposed to be orange. I realize it is colored with some sort of natural vegetable coloring, but what is the point of that?

A block of packaged cheddar cheese from Harris Teeter.

I almost wondered if he’s been paying attention to this whole budget thing. When you have approximately $16 left to spend at the farmer’s market (and you desperately need to spend $3 or $4 of that on eggs) you don’t go spending 2 extra unnecessary dollars on cheese just because it is a better deal. So I just hope this doesn’t mean my husband is going to get out of his Farmer’s Market duties this fall/winter (it’s his turn to go every other Saturday since it starts so darn early!). After the cheese episode, I am not sure I can trust him to spend my last precious food dollars that have to get us through the rest of the weekend! And I am going to return the unopened cheese by the way.

On a much lighter note, I decided to go ahead and roast the chicken tonight that I had been saving for the broth/soup. A reader mentioned that I could make broth out of the chicken carcass (that is such a lovely word) so I will be sure to save the leftover bones if they don’t gross me out too much! I felt like we might starve tonight if I didn’t go ahead and make the chicken though, plus I didn’t think it would hurt to redeem myself after the meal last night. As you can see, it turned out just lovely with a side of wild rice and sauteed sweet potatoes/apples, which rounded out the meal nicely. I can’t wait until I get more money on Monday, and I have to be sure I do a little better with the whole meal planning part of all of this!!

A plate of roasted chicken, wild rice, and sautéed sweet potatoes/apples.

Budget Day 21: Week 3 and Halloween

October 25, 2010

Homemade matzo ball soup in a bowl.

Finally … we had our matzo ball soup tonight. It was long awaited since it was originally on my plan for Wednesday of last week. Oh well, better late than never! My whole family loves this soup though (especially the dumplings which are made out of 2-ingredient whole-wheat matzo crackers) so it was well worth the wait. Last night I was off the hook and didn’t have to make a big dinner because it was one of the lovely times that someone else hosted dinner club! It was a fabulous evening and the timing couldn’t have been better since our fridge was feeling rather empty.

The farmer’s market on Saturday morning did help give our food supply a little boost to get us through the weekend though. Here’s what I got for $16.50 …

Fresh produce from the farmers market that includes eggs, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, and green beans.
  • Eggs
  • Lettuce
  • Half bag of spinach
  • Sungold cherry tomatoes
  • 3 regular tomatoes
  • Green bean mix

So after that purchase (which required some leftover change from the week before) this is how last week ended with only 1 sad little penny left!

  • Harris Teeter $33.07
  • Earthfare $25.53
  • Milk $29.97
  • Sandwich Bread from Great Harvest $5.00
  • Chicken (I pulled it out of our freezer, but as promised in the rules, I deducted money since it was meat purchased pre-budget) $15
  • Farmer’s Market (pictured) $16.50

Week 3 was the hardest one yet and we also had meat twice and fish once. Coincidence? I think not … which means I need to chill with the meat and seafood dishes! Now I am tasked with figuring out a plan that I will actually stick to next week. I am craving some jambalaya or gumbo, but other than that, I will have to let the items that are left in the fridge dictate our plans.

I am also going to try out Trader Joe’s this week for some groceries. I am completely out of cashews and almonds for granola so hopefully I can find some good deals there. I am a little weary about their produce though because, from what I remembe,r you usually have to buy organic stuff in bulk. And we are in dire need of some fresh fruit (and cheese!). I am sure I will end up going to two stores again … with Earthfare as my trusty back-up for the things I can’t get elsewhere.

A bin full of small kid toys for halloween.

In the meantime, one thing I am prepared for is trick or treaters! I thought it would be fun to try to do something I’ve never done before … have a “candy-less” Halloween. Some may call me a scrooge, but one cannot argue that kids don’t already get PLENTY of candy on Halloween whether I am also handing it out or not. So, pictured is my loot. And I know my kids are young (3 and 5), but they absolutely loved digging through this stash and begged to pick out some stuff to keep. So I was happy that it passed their initial test, but I am anxious to see the response next weekend as well!

Budget Day 23: Trader Joe’s

October 27, 2010

I finally tried to do some “real food” budget shopping at Trader Joe’s. I was unfortunately short on time, but once I started shopping I realized it didn’t matter because it is one SMALL store. There is practically a whole aisle dedicated to wine (which, don’t get me wrong, I love) and another aisle mostly dedicated to frozen pre-made food (which I basically skipped). So that left me with 2 aisles and the produce section.

My immediate thought was that they could not possibly sell all the things on my list with so few products. So should we start with what I did spend $58.73 on … or with all the things on my list that I was unable to buy? Well, I know how much people seem to like this store so I will be nice … here is what I got (which was mostly organic):

Groceries from Trader Joe's that include fruits, vegetables, nuts, and oats.
  • Bananas $1.16
  • Green grapes $2.99
  • Whole raw cashews $5.49
  • Raisins $2.69
  • Mushrooms $1.99
  • Two pears $1.38
  • Coffee beans $6.49
  • Pumpkin seeds $5.49
  • Monterey Jack cheese $3.59
  • Cheddar cheese $2.27
  • Marinara sauce $2.29
  • Honey $2.79
  • (Non- GMO) Canola oil $3.49 … and by the way, I returned the comment provoking “GMO Canola Oil” to Wal-Mart today!
  • Oats X 2 $2.29 each
  • Lara bar $1.29
  • Parmigiano Reggiano $4.62
  • Sliced Almonds X 2 $2.49 each

Okay, so I will start with the positives. The almonds, cashews, and cheese were definitely cheaper than other stores … and we certainly go through our fair share of those items. In some instances, I sort of liked how they didn’t have a lot of choices. I think it can make shopping easier and faster. If there is only one organic whole coffee bean choice or only one organic rolled oat choice then that is what you get. No decisions necessary. Lastly, I was told that none of their products are made from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) which is helpful because then it is can easily be avoided even if you can’t/don’t buy organic.

Here are the things I did not like about Trader Joe’s. First, let’s start with some of the things on my list that were not available for purchase …

  • Dried chickpeas
  • Tahini
  • Shredded coconut (of any kind…not even sweetened)
  • A single organic onion
  • Organic cream
  • Single organic potatoes
  • A single head of organic garlic

And in the spice section, I couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t appear to sell ground ginger. I didn’t need to buy it … I was just looking. So this brings me to the biggest reason I am not a huge Trader Joe’s fan. This store could never be my one-stop shop. And who says I can’t have real food, cheap, AND convenience all at the same time? :) The point is, if I decide to shop there I will always have to go to yet another store to get everything on my list. And I also do not think their produce is that great. Aside from the fact that I have to buy most organic produce items in bulk (which doesn’t work on my tightwad budget), I don’t think it looks like the freshest stuff around either. The grapes, which I bought, were really dirty (it’s not like they’re grown in the ground like a carrot!) and quite a few of them had mold at the base.

With that being said, I do think the nuts and cheese at Trader Joe’s were cheap enough for me to make a special trip there. And the store is right next to Great Harvest where I go every other week to buy our sandwich bread anyway. So, on those weeks I will have to try to stock up on nuts and cheese since it would obviously be worth it. I am glad to have yet another new store checked off my list of places to try because when it comes to chores I like routine, and I cannot wait to define my new shopping routine on this budget!

Oh, and before I forget … here is our dinner plan for the week!

Monday: We had leftover Matzo ball soup (have I mentioned how much I love leftovers?)

Tuesday: Shrimp and sausage jambalaya

Wednesday: Gnocchi with a mushroom/sausage red sauce and broccoli

Thursday: Some kind of chestnut dish, maybe some pasta, and green beans

Friday: Leftovers (hopefully)

Saturday: We are having a big Halloween Party where I am serving a “real food” dinner from a separate entertaining budget … more on that later!

Budget Day 25: Food Stamps, Earth Fare, and Halloween

October 28, 2010

Just guess how much money our family of four would have available to spend on food if we were getting food stamp benefits (which by the way has been renamed to SNAP)? $167/week. Yep, that is $42 more a week than what we are currently spending during this little 100 Days of Real Food on a Budget project. In all fairness, we are also allowing ourselves to spend $20/week on eating out. But, even if we included that additional money (which we’ve barely used so far) it would still mean we fall $22 short of a family on food stamps.

An extra 20 bucks or more a week would feel like a lot of money right now! I am by no means trying to diminish the difficult reality of truly living on a SNAP budget (we are practicing a self-imposed budget for only 100 days, after all), rather I am just patting myself on the back a bit for sticking to a tight budget.

So back to what I’ve been buying on this super tight budget … As I mentioned the other day, I got some items from Trader Joe’s, but I was not able to buy everything on my list. So I went to Earth Fare yesterday and tried to spend the least amount of money possible, which turned out to be $12.33. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. And here is what I got …

Groceries from Earth Fare that include fresh produce, beans, and heavy cream.
  • 0.79 lbs dried garbanzo beans $1.73
  • Heavy cream $2.99
  • Bananas $0.70
  • Fruit cup honeydew melon $1.58
  • Head of garlic $0.50
  • Mango $1.25
  • Potatoes $3.09
  • Shallot $0.25
  • 3 lb Bag of apples – FREE!! Thanks to an Earth Fare coupon!

Here are the things I wanted to buy, but didn’t …

  • Soy sauce – We are just low … not out completely, so I will wait another week.
  • Unsweetened coconut – We love having this in our granola recipe, but we can still eat it without the coconut so it had to be skipped.
  • Frozen berries – I’ve unfortunately gone from fresh berries in my granola to mediocre frozen berries to now eating whatever fruit we have on hand (apples, bananas) in the morning.
  • Tahini – Um, how could I have never noticed that this cost more than $7 a jar! Luckily, I could wait on this one too.

We just keep making sacrifices on this budget and some of them are of course a bigger deal than others. For example, I can totally live without the coconut in my granola … but I still really miss my berries in the morning! One new thing I just noticed (since I now am documenting my shopping so nicely!) is that my husband asked me to buy coffee beans at Trader Joe’s earlier this week, and I had just bought him a ($9) bag when we first started this budget, which was only a few weeks ago.

So I told him if we are going to limit everyone else’s milk consumption to save money he is definitely going to have to cut back on coffee. I don’t drink coffee myself (only a mocha with 1 small shot of espresso), and he didn’t use to drink coffee either up until a year or two ago. If he doesn’t start drinking less he might have to give it up altogether … just like the old days!

There’s been a lot of discussion around here about the impending candy holiday that is coming up this weekend. I of course want my kids to participate in all of the Halloween fun, but I am trying not to let the junk overwhelm me along the way. Kids obviously get excited about trick-or-treating (which I wholeheartedly accept), but what about all of the other treats, school parties, and spider crafts made out of Oreos that lead up to the big event? I honestly don’t know what to do with all of the stuff they are bringing home, and that is if they even bring it home from school before they eat it.

One of the few things I do feel like I have under my control is the night of trick-or-treating. We are absolutely going to let our girls trick-or-treat their little hearts out, it is just what we are going to do with all of the candy that will be different this year. After hearing this advice from several parents we’ve decided to let them keep 5 pieces of candy (of their choice!) and then we will “buy” the rest of the candy from them. Our kids are still little so we don’t expect them to get a ton. So we are thinking we will give them either one nickel or one dime per piece (oh, I need to go to the bank!), which they can then use to buy a toy from the store. I have to say that my girls, who have both been given very limited candy over the last few months, are pretty darn excited about getting FIVE whole pieces of candy AND a new toy of their choice! I am not sure how many years this will work out for us so nicely, but at least for this Halloween, we have a plan.

PS – For all those located in the Charlotte area … Earth Fare is offering a $5 off coupon (with $25 purchase) for all 100 Days readers! Here is the deal: 1. The offer is good at the Ballantyne and SouthPark locations, 2. Must pick up coupon before Nov. 10, 3. To get the coupon you need to mention that you read my Budget Day 12: A Real Happy Meal. Yay! I can’t wait to get $5 off myself :)

Budget Day 27: Take-out

October 30, 2010

Just a quick post today because we still have SOOO much left to do to prepare for our Halloween party tonight! Since we are super busy with all of that, I decided not to make a production out of dinner last night, and we didn’t have enough leftovers to make a meal. So we ordered some take-out for the first time in (what felt like) years. I actually heard myself explaining to my 5-year-old that “take-out is when you go pick the food up from the restaurant and eat it at home.”

We got the idea from some coupons that my daughter brought home from school. After quickly sifting through the stack I threw away a bunch of discounts to fast food and ice cream places. But, one coupon to a place called “Noodles & Company” stood out to me because I wondered if they had any dishes made with 100% whole grain noodles. I gave them a call and was somewhat surprised (but pleased) to learn that you could substitute whole-wheat linguini in any dish. So we decided to give them a shot. When I went to pick up our order I realized it was not a very formal place, and that it was basically set up like a Moe’s or Qdoba except serving noodles. It didn’t have a drive-thru or anything like that, but I wondered if this was more of a “fast food” type place than I originally thought.

Two bowls of take-out Pad Thai and Curry.

I got home and soon after we dug right into our Pad Thai and Curry dishes we were quickly reminded why we never get take-out. The food was just okay and my husband and 3-year-old actually didn’t like it at all. The noodles were whole grain like they said, but the sauces and toppings were probably not made with the freshest of ingredients (my husband claims the sauces tasted like a mix of corn starch and corn syrup, which would make this one of the rare occasions we’ve broken our original rules while on a budget). I must blame our food snobbiness (is that a word?) on the fact that we’ve been doing nothing but spoiling ourselves with real, fresh, delicious, and wholesome food ever since we started our first 100-day pledge. I guess some might see it as a downside that the low-quality stuff just doesn’t taste good anymore, but we of course would not change a thing (now that we have seen the light)!

With our coupon, dinner was only $8.19 so at least it was a small investment to figure out their restaurant wasn’t a good fit for us. Without the coupon, it would have been twice as much. So this is where we stand at the close of week 4 with our $20/week eating out budget so far …

  • Week 1: Dinner at Earth Fare Kids Night $7.59
  • Week 2: A smoothie from Earth Fare while shopping one day $4.68
  • Week 3: Noodles & Company $8.19

Amount left in eating out envelope = $59.54 I think I am going to save up so we can enjoy a nice, high-quality meal at a local restaurant sometime soon.

Budget Day 29: Halloween Partaaay!

November 2, 2010

Inside of a house that is decorated for Halloween.

This is going to be one complicated week when it comes to budgeting. First of all, our Halloween Party (which involved feeding dinner to 90 people) was of course not included in our weekly grocery budget of $125. Let’s just say we spent even more than that on just the one evening of food for everyone! And we ended up with some leftovers after the party, which we’ve of course been eating (and didn’t technically “pay” for out of our grocery budget).

The second complication is the arrival of our first set of extended houseguests since starting our budget. You obviously need extra food for extra people and I don’t know about you, but when the houseguests are my parents they inevitably end up buying some groceries of their own (more on that later)!

Back to the party. I thought it would be a little easier to just serve one big dinner as opposed to making a bunch of separate little dishes or appetizers. So everyone knew to expect some grub and in exchange, they each brought an “adult beverage” to share with the crowd. And, oh a crowd it was! Part of our invitation went like this:

“We’ll serve whole foods for all, local and organic
No candy corns or tortilla chips, please don’t panic”

With that being said, we didn’t offer one single piece of candy at the party and ended up serving as much local and organic food as possible. I got more than half of the ingredients at the farmer’s market that morning. Here is what we served (which is also pictured, but you can’t really see it very well thanks to our spooky Halloween lighting!) …

Table setting of food for guest at a Halloween party.
  • Grateful Grower’s (local farm) pulled pork BBQ
  • Great Harvest honey whole-wheat rolls
  • Side of sautéed sweet potatoes and apples
  • Salad made with bibb lettuce, sungold cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, and glazed pecans
  • Honey dew melon, red grape, and pineapple fruit salad
  • Triscuits, whole-wheat pretzels, and white cheddar cheese cubes
  • Cute little white ghost cupcakes made with plenty of sugar!
  • Party favors for the kids which were plastic hands filled with organic popcorn

Our friends of course know all about our real food adventures so the cupcake thing really threw everyone off. So many people came up to us with their cupcakes and said “do these have sugar in them?” or “are they organic?” I just had to laugh. Breaking “the rules” is certainly okay in moderation, and there is no better time to do it than Halloween!! Not to mention that our dear friend with a cupcake business made them from scratch for us so I know she didn’t use any funky ingredients.

We did get a lot of nice compliments about the dinner though, and one neighbor even told me that she woke up feeling so great the next day because she wasn’t sitting around eating junk all night like people normally do at parties. It was fun, but I am not committing to serving dinner to 90 people again anytime soon (if ever!) LOL. I included some extra pics of the non-food part of the party since we worked so hard on all of the décor!

Inside of a house decorated for Halloween with kids dressed in costumes.
Inside of a house decorated for Halloween with kids dressed in costumes.

Halloween weekend was capped off with a fun evening of trick or treating. As previously mentioned, our plan was to let our girls each eat 5 pieces of their choice and then we would “buy” the rest from them (they could save their 5 pieces or eat it all at once … it was up to them!). My oldest daughter ate 4 of her 5 before we even got home from trick or treating. What can I say … I guess she’s missed candy, although I don’t think she is necessarily a “deprived child” when it comes to the sweets and junk they give the kindergartners at school. My other daughter was not quite as rushed to eat hers (thankfully).

After figuring out what pieces they would keep, I have to say they appeared to have loads of fun counting up (and handing over) their pieces to get quarters in exchange. We were originally only going to give them dimes, but a blog reader actually gave us the wonderful idea to not just do this for Halloween … but to do it all year round whenever they are given candy! We were worried that dimes wouldn’t amount to very much during those non-holiday periods of time, and the plan is to let them buy a toy of their choice with their money. Doing this for my girls makes me feel like this might just be the perfect balance between those fun and carefree childhood experiences, and not going overboard … which I am thrilled about!

Some of you may be wondering if I ate any candy? Especially those friends who knew me in my “previous life” because I was a candy hound! In the old days, I could barely keep the Halloween candy in my house because, like an idiot, I would buy my favorites and eat most of it before the big day. All I have to say is that this year I only ate two little snickers and they were mmm, mmm, good! That is it though … moderation is key, which certainly made this feel like the “special occasion” that it should be.

Budget Day 31: House Guests and a Dinner Outing

November 4, 2010

As previously mentioned, we are experiencing a complicated budget week between hosting a party and house guests. My parents arrived the day after our Halloween Party and we all took advantage of the leftover food, but I knew it wouldn’t last us throughout their visit. I did buy a few extra things from the farmer’s market last weekend (from a separate entertaining budget) in preparation for their visit including bell peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and apples. I was feeling kind of guilty that I bought some things outside of our regular $125 budget, but thinking back that isn’t really that much food!

In addition to those extras, this is what I got with our remaining $19.85 last week from the Farmer’s Market …

A plate of broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs, and spinach.
  • Broccoli
  • Cucumber
  • Tomatoes
  • Two dozen eggs
  • Bag of spinach

So this is how things totaled up at the end of week 4 after I spent every last penny!

  • Trader Joe’s $58.73
  • Earth Fare $12.33
  • Harris Teeter $1.28 (I needed one organic onion and that is the closest store to us)
  • Shrimp and sausage out of the freezer (for jambalaya) $10.95
  • Milk $27.97
  • A Wal-Mart credit! Since I returned some cooking oil -$6.10

I had shared our weekly dinner plan for last week before I got too distracted with our party, and I am happy to report that we mostly stuck to the plan! The only changes we made were to the pasta dish on Thursday, which didn’t include chestnuts (since they took too long to cook) and also the plan to have leftovers on Friday (we didn’t have enough to make a meal), which is when we had our little take-out experience.

This week I did not make too much of a dinner plan since my parents were here, and I thought it would be best to play things by ear. We did eat leftovers from our party one night, and I made fajitas for everyone (with all those bell peppers) another night. But, I am lucky I didn’t plan things too much beyond that because my husband and I ended up having an impromptu date night out while grandma and grandpa kept the kids! It was the perfect opportunity for us to experience some delicious local cuisine that we didn’t have to cook ourselves.

A few weeks ago (thanks to a blog reader!) I came across a website where you can purchase restaurant gift certificates at rock bottom prices. So I compared their list of options with my list of Charlotte restaurants that I know utilize local produce, and I found 1 match! Which is how we ended up at Gallery Restaurant within Ballantyne Resort. The meal was absolutely excellent, and these are the small plates that we spent $57.01 of our eating out budget on (after using and deducting the up front cost of our restaurant.com gift certificate) …

  • French Onion Soup
  • Spiced Squash Soup
  • The Scallop Special
  • Rabbit Cannelloni
  • Apple and Brie Dish
  • Mushroom and Spinach Risotto

Aside from the fact that we ordered way too much food, our entire dinner experience was very much enjoyed! Now that is the kind of dinner worth spending money on so I am glad we saved up … it was quite different from our little take-out experience (on day 27) the other night. It is too bad high quality food is often times so expensive, but this was certainly a case of getting what you pay for!

Budget Day 33: Almost Broke

November 5, 2010

Yes, I am almost broke and here’s why. Can you believe that the jar of local honey pictured below cost $11.99?? And then as if that was supposed to be a good deal the big jug of 100% pure maple syrup (grade b) was on sale for $18.99! I thought I might come out ahead this week after having our leftovers from the party get us through the beginning of the week, but as it turns out, I could have never bought these sweeteners without that help! Luckily, the super expensive syrup should last us a long time (I do use a little in my mocha on most mornings), and I am going to have to start watching the honey more closely. But my guess is that jar will last us 2 – 3 weeks since I use it a couple of times a week to make granola.

Speaking of granola, I figured out a super cheap way to make it. I was planning to buy all of the ingredients I normally use (cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds) when I realized that a Trader Joe’s bag of sunflower seeds is much cheaper than their pumpkin seeds and a bag of almonds is a fraction of the cost of their cashews. While we prefer to have all of those goodies in our cereal (the cashews are my 3-year-old’s favorite part!) it is good to know that if I am tight on cash it doesn’t mean we have to skip the granola all together.

So anyway, I only have 15 bucks and some change left for the farmer’s market on Saturday. Here is the list of what I got from Harris Teeter (which is the closest store to us) when I made a quick run on Monday so I could make fajitas for dinner when my parents were here. Harris Teeter doesn’t have as many organic options as I would like, but that is what happens when you don’t have time to go somewhere else!

Groceries from Harris Teeter that include cheese and produce.
  • Cilantro $1.99
  • Cheddar cheese $2.00
  • Monterey Jack cheese $3.69
  • Mozzarella cheese $3.99
  • Avocado $2.29
  • Lime $0.50
  • Onion $1.49

This is what I spent $47.98 on at Earth Fare yesterday (most of which was organic) when I used my $5 off coupon for being a 100 Days of Real Food reader!

Groceries from Earth Fare that include produce, oats, honey, maple syrup, and whole-grain pretzels.
  • Honey $11.99
  • Maple syrup $18.99
  • Whole-grain pretzels $4.99
  • Oats 2 for $5.00 plus a $1.00 off coupon for buying two
  • Bananas $1.72
  • Grapes $2.58
  • Lemon $0.99
  • 2 Onions $3.52
  • 2 Pears $3.14

Then I went to Great Harvest and spent $5 on one loaf of honey whole-wheat sandwich bread. After buying the jar of honey and syrup at Earth Fare there was no way I could spring another $5 on the loaf I usually like to have as a back-up for the following week. Then I went right next door to Trader Joe’s (since I’ve learned their nuts are cheaper than Earth Fare) and spent $10.05 on …

Groceries from Trader Joe's that include almonds, sunflower seeds, butter, and pita bread.
  • Unsalted butter $4.79
  • Raw sunflower seeds $1.49
  • Sliced almonds $2.49
  • Whole-wheat pita pack $1.49

We have not had pitas in almost a year, so I was thrilled when a blog reader told me about the “real food approved” whole-wheat pitas from Trader Joe’s (thank you Krista!). I bought them, and I am still finding it hard to believe that any bread-like item from a grocery store could contain only 5 ingredients … amazing! Okay, Trader Joe’s gets another point in my book after that one. I know I wasn’t too fond of shopping there the other week, but if I just skip the produce and only go after what I know I can get there then I might just keep going back (and hopefully next time I can afford their frozen berries that everyone’s been telling me about!).

Budget Day 36: Scrounging

November 9, 2010

Budget Day 36: Scrounging 1

Tonight I attempted to be creative with what we had on hand instead of going to the store (even though I normally go on Monday’s since it is the start of my $125 budget week). At first, we were actually going to have a decent dinner of quiche until some lovely errands and laundry caused me to run out of time to wait for it to bake. So I opted for a quick broccoli/cheese omelet, and no one seemed to mind the change in plans except for my 5-year-old. I guess I made the mistake of originally telling her we were going to have quiche, but she normally loves eggs so we of course told her to eat what she was served because that’s what was for dinner!

I am sort of planning to make a run to the store tomorrow, but I am wondering if we could manage to survive if I try to wait even one more day. Of course we would “survive”, but would the monotonous food be too difficult to bear? One of my biggest roadblocks is that we are also almost out of cheese! I know everyone gives me a hard time about how much we buy/eat/like cheese … are we really the only ones out there with the desire for dairy?

Here are some preliminary ideas that I have for dinner tomorrow if I can once again only use what we have on hand: fried rice (green beans, brown rice, some egg), pasta (I even have some cream and could make a yummy alfredo sauce, but that wouldn’t be a very balanced meal!), something with dried beans (which would mean I would need to have a plan and start soaking them tonight). I think I already have lunch covered tomorrow so I am tempted to take on the challenge and put off going to the store as long as I can. So we will see what happens!

Since yesterday was the last day of a budget week here is how things ended with less than 25 cents left …

Groceries that include green beans, tomatoes, peppers, and eggs.
  • Harris Teeter $16.27
  • Earth Fare $47.98
  • Great Harvest Bread $5.00
  • Trader Joe’s $10.47
  • Local Milk $29.97
  • Farmer’s Market (pictured) $13.00
  • Harris Teeter (again) $2.05

Last night, my husband ran to Harris Teeter (our closest store) because we really wanted to make some pizza for dinner, and we had everything we needed except for the cheese (imagine that!). It was certainly was nice of him to make the trip to the store for us, but on that trip my husband proceeded to have a “cheese offense” that was quite possibly even worse than the colored cheese incident (on day 19). He bought pre-grated cheese!

I know we only had a little more than $2 to spend, but spending it on pre-grated cheese that is drenched in a powdery additive to keep it from sticking together? Yuck. And unfortunately we had no choice but to eat it. I can certainly think of many worse things to eat, but I still didn’t like that we had to resort to nasty powdery cheese. Isn’t it funny how what was once the norm around here has suddenly become totally unacceptable?

On one final note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I actually went away on a quick girls trip this weekend! Girls meaning adult “girls” … not with my daughters! So I of course dipped into our “travel budget” for 2 dinners and one lunch out for myself. I brought along my own breakfast from home. I ordered the most real food possible while I was away, which on the first night included a baked potato soup (which they said was made in house and did not have sugar in it) and a salad. Lunch the following day was crab cakes (which of course had a small bit of white bread crumbs in it), and dinner on the last night consisted of a salad, local baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and veggies.

My husband and our “little” girls survived just fine on our real food budget in my absence. My husband actually knows his way around a kitchen so they chowed down on some delicious homemade tomato bisque soup (which we had leftover for lunch today), a pasta dish, and pb&j’s among other things. I certainly enjoyed my little break from the kitchen while I was away!

Budget Day 38: Parfaits to the Rescue

November 11, 2010

There’s one thing I forgot to mention about this whole real food on a budget project. Yes the food has to be “real” and yes it cannot exceed $125 a week, but the other part I’ve neglected to mention is that it must also taste good too! I might have overlooked the importance of this issue before, but as of late, I’ve decided this is a must for me. I absolutely cannot eat just for sustenance. I cannot eat the same thing over and over again. And I struggle to be satisfied with a meal that feels like it is just a bunch of random things thrown together. Unfortunately, I am finding that meeting this latest requirement could very well be the hardest part of all when it comes to having a budget drive our choices!

All of this is top of mind after our dinner last night. For the better part of yesterday afternoon, the back of my mind was occupied with what in the world we could possibly eat for dinner. I was experimenting with not going to the store at the start of my budget week (like I normally do) and instead trying to “survive” by eating what we had on hand. Yes, “surviving” may sound a little dramatic, but that is how it feels! Monday night wasn’t so bad, but then last night every dinner option I could think of had some sort of roadblock. 

I was originally thinking fried rice or stir fry (which, by the way, can be a great meal when you are trying to make a bunch of random stuff something special). But then I realized we did not have an onion, and I just couldn’t imagine starting the dish without that key ingredient. Next, I thought I could somehow incorporate fettuccini alfredo since I happened to have some cream on hand, but then I realized my supply of paremsan cheese was next to nothing (which is necessary for that dish). Then after spending some quality time in the back of my freezer I discovered some whole grain polenta that I’d forgotten about. We hadn’t made polenta in a very long time and most importantly it sounded good. But, yikes … how in the world could I make a complete meal out of it???

A berry smoothie in a martini glass topped with granola.

My husband is normally creative in the kitchen, but he was no help. And everything that I thought would be fabulous with polenta (mushrooms, sausage, shrimp, onions!, spaghetti sauce) just did not exist in our house. So in an effort to “save” dinner as best I could, I made a smoothie to go with it. Not just any smoothie though … a smoothie layered with (what was left of) our granola in fancy martini glasses. I just had to do something to make dinner appealing, and luckily our cute little daughters were very excited about the outcome. Because yes, I even let our THREE-year-old carefully eat hers out of a breakable martini glass too. They thought it was pretty special though, and even though parfait smoothies and polenta (topped with spinach) don’t at all go together … I was honestly relieved that we were not just eating for sustenance because meal time can be (and should be) so much more than that!!

On another note, let’s address this whole experiment of mine to hold off going to the store. I have to say it was completely pointless. One would think it would make me spend less money this week, but what I found was that instead of “scrounging” ,at the end of the week while we wait for the next budget day to roll around we just did the very same thing at the beginning. And it was almost worse because I had the money this time and was constantly tempted to buy missing ingredients for every meal that I thought to make. So long story short, I am not going to do that again! When I finally did go to the store today I tried shopping at Bi-Lo and this is what I got for $35.56 (almost all of which was organic) …

Groceries from Bi-Lo that included potatoes, onions, fruit, crackers, flour, yogurt, Lara bars, and brown rice cakes.
  • 2 Lara bars $3.00
  • Brown rice cakes $2.59
  • Triscuits $3.00 (on sale)
  • Whole-wheat flour $2.98
  • All Fruit spread $2.45
  • Plain yogurt $3.84
  • Baby carrots $1.25 (on sale)
  • Bag of yellow onions $2.99
  • Bag of potatoes $3.99 (we have potato soup in our future!)
  • Bananas $1.37
  • Green grapes $5.20
  • Cut honeydew melon $2.18

This was my first time budget shopping for real food at Bi-Lo and while they did have some decent organic choices, I didn’t think their non-sale prices were anything to write home about. They have a store very close to us though so it might be a good “last minute” store alternative to our usual Harris Teeter, but overall, the pricing does not make it worth my time to shop there. Not to mention the amount of “non-real food” products at their store that I have to weed through to get to the good stuff.

Budget Day 40: Almost Halfway and Tortilla Fail

November 12, 2010

Oh my gosh … here on day 40 I can’t help but think about how we are almost halfway there. I still plan to be on a budget when all of this is over (and we will still of course be eating “real food”), but I am pretty sure I will be giving myself more than $125/week to spend. And it is hard not to look forward to that! In the meantime, I will just have to keep dealing with the temptations of all the delicious expensive food I see (and can’t afford to buy) every time I go shopping … including things like artichokes, scallops, mangoes, proscuitto and other cuts of meat, fresh mozzarella, and olives. This list could just go on and on!

So back to reality … as I mentioned I tried shopping at Bi-Lo the other day, but couldn’t get everything on my list so I had to make another run to the store. I still needed some staples like nuts, seeds, and cheese, so I decided to go to Trader Joe’s since they seem to have the best deal on those items (and I also needed bread which is right next door). Here’s what I got for $31.74 from Trader Joe’s …

Groceries from Trader Joe's that include seeds, mushrooms, cheese, nuts, and raisins.
  • Pumpkin seeds $5.49
  • Sunflower seeds $1.49 (it is hard to beat that deal!)
  • Sliced almonds $2.49
  • Mushrooms $1.99
  • Monterery Jack cheese $3.07
  • Cheddar $4.29
  • Raisins $2.69
  • Cashews $5.49
  • Parmesan cheese $4.12

I also spent $5 on a loaf of honey whole-wheat bread from Great Harvest. And then I had to run back to Trader Joe’s the next day to get …

  • 1 Avocado $1.32

I also “charged myself” to pull some local meat out of our freezer since it was purchased pre-budget …

  • 1 pound of local ground pork $4.17

Then right when I thought I was doing okay with about $15 left to spend at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday I forgot that I had to take out $4 more for some vanilla beans that I’d ordered from the internet. I make my own vanilla extract (which is a very simple process by the way) and ever since I found this website that only charges $2 per bean (and free shipping) I’ve never bought them from anywhere else. So long story short … I only have $11 and change left and we desperately need eggs! So unfortunately, I won’t be getting much else this weekend. That sucks.

Homemade ground pork tacos with cheese, tomatoes, and greens on a tortilla.

In other news, we enjoyed chowing down on the ground pork this week and managed to stretch it over three meals. First we made tacos, and to help make the meat go further, we laced it with a whole container of diced mushrooms (pictured above) and some chopped carrots as well. I attempted to make some corn tortillas to wrap everything up in, and while they tasted delicious they looked quite disastrous. This is my second time making them, and in my opinion, they are nothing but a pain in the neck to try to keep together!

They just fall apart and crumble so easily no matter what ratio of masa harina/water I use. And I find it difficult to make the tortillas thin enough without having them break into a thousand pieces. I can’t believe how much easier it is to make the flour ones. If anyone has homemade corn tortilla advice (or has experience with a tortilla press) please share! Otherwise I will not be attempting these again anytime soon, which is too bad because all four of us loved the dinner.

Budget Day 43: Under Budget!!

November 16 2010

I am so excited I can hardly stand it. It only took me 43 days to do it, but finally for once I came in under budget! Woohoo! And not only did I come in under budget (with my purchases from Earth Fare today), but check out how much food I got. I could barely fit it into the picture there is so much. After scrounging for food all weekend (since the budget week ends on Sundays), having this much food in our house at one time feels like a bountiful feast!

Groceries from Earth Fare that include fruits and vegetables, flour, frozen berries, cheese, oats, and more.

I planned to spend $82 today, but my first round of groceries surprisingly left me with 10 bucks to spare. I certainly could have saved this unexpected $10, but I am a spender by nature so instead I decided to get a few “extras” that weren’t on my original list. So to my cart I added my beloved mozzarella cheese (the kind that floats in the water, which is the bomb), another bag of organic whole-wheat flour since I seem to be running low on that lately, and some more mushrooms.

Even after purchasing those items the bill only came to $81.50. I was more than thrilled that I got to splurge on my favorite cheese and still end up with 50 cents to spare. It seems like every other time I go to the store I plan to spend $25 and I end up spending $30 … so this is major progress for me!

I don’t even know how I managed to do so well today. It might have just been luck with the meals I’d planned for the week and with the sales they were having (no, I did not plan my meals around the sales … I know I should!). I also used one coupon, which saved me a dollar. I am trying with the coupons, but often times it seems the store-brand is cheaper than the name brand with the coupon. So anyway … here is a list of my purchases (most of which was organic) …

  • Raw sliced almonds $2.54 (on sale)
  • Rolled oats $2.18
  • Peanut butter $2.40
  • Sesame seeds $2.02
  • Fresh mozzarella $3.99
  • Unsalted butter $4.49
  • Cheddar $4.49 (on sale)
  • 2 blocks of Monterey Jack $6.00 (on sale)
  • 2 containers sour cream $1.79 each (with coupon)
  • Frozen blueberries $3.00
  • Puffed whole grain corn cereal $1.50 (on sale)
  • Crushed red pepper $1.39
  • 2 bags whole-wheat flour $5.00 (on sale)
  • 2 cans black beans $2.00 (on sale)
  • Whole wheat pasta elbows $1.99
  • Bulk cinnamon $7.99
  • 2 apples $3.36
  • Bananas $1.56
  • Green beans $0.68
  • Celery $1.50
  • Cilantro $1.50
  • Cantaloupe fruit cup $1.34
  • Garlic $0.65
  • Leek $1.41
  • Lemon $0.99
  • Lime $0.66
  • Mango $1.25
  • Mushroom pack $3.00 (on sale)
  • Bulk mushrooms $1.55
  • 2 pears $2.38
  • Bell pepper $0.99
  • Zucchini $0.89
  • Tomatillos $2.61

And with these items we will make the following dinners this week …

  • Monday: Vegetarian Enchiladas (with beans!) topped with cheese and tomatillo salsa
  • Tuesday: Chicken in the slow cooker with mashed potatoes and veggies (I am pulling a local chicken out of our freezer and “charging” myself for it)
  • Wednesday: Chicken and wild rice casserole with green beans
  • Thursday: Leftovers for my husband / Earth Fare free kids night for us (maybe)
  • Friday: Potato / Turnip soup
  • Saturday: Planning to go out to dinner

In light of the small amount of money I spent on such delicious and nutritious “real food” today, I’d like to mention a very interesting article that I recently read in the Charlotte Observer. The article highlighted a local businessman who organized a challenge to see if he (and others) could manage to live off $7/day per person (which is the amount allotted for food stamp recipients). The article specifically mentions their need to rely on “dollar menus and granola bars” during the challenge and also their feeling of waking up hungry in the middle of the night.

I know I’ve compared our weekly budget to the food stamp allotment before, but I am totally floored by this article because if you get out your calculator, we are only spending $4.45/day per person. And even if you add in our $20/week for eating out (which we don’t always use) it would come to $5.17/each. And granted, this week is turning out to be a good week for us, but no matter how you look at it, for 43 days we’ve been eating much better food for much less money than this group! Amazing.

Also, since yesterday ended a budget week here is a list of how things totaled up last week …

Groceries from a local Farmers Market that includes bacon, eggs, tomatoes, and radishes.
  • Milk $31.97
  • Bi-Lo $35.56
  • Sandwich bread $5.00
  • Trader Joe’s $31.74
  • Local ground pork (out of our freezer) $4.17
  • Avocado $1.32
  • Vanilla Beans $4.00
  • Farmer’s Market (pictured) $11.24

Budget Day 46: Pancakes for Dinner and Record Time

November 19, 2010

Homemade whole-wheat banana pancakes on a plate.

I might as well get used to never following my weekly dinner plan because that is slowly becoming the norm rather than the exception. That’s okay though … it makes me feel “flexible” (even though I know my Type A Personality is really nothing of the sort!). Anyway, we were supposed to have our chicken and rice casserole last night, but we didn’t. My husband was out of town and I didn’t feel like working that hard in the kitchen in his absence.

So, on a whim, (see, I am flexible!) I surprised my girls with whole-wheat banana pancakes for dinner.  We’ve had “breakfast for dinner” a thousand times in this house, but for some strange reason it is always an egg dish. I have no idea why it never occurred to me to serve a different breakfast meal for dinner? Well, let’s just say the pancake surprise was a pretty big hit. I think my 5-year-old ate as much as me and my other daughter combined.

Tonight we were supposed to go to Earth Fare (free kids night) with some friends, but those plans changed as well. So I decided we should have last night’s chicken casserole tonight. The only problem was that the girls and I were unexpectedly out running errands until almost 6:30 P.M. The whole way home I was worried about how in the world I would manage to make dinner, feed them, bathe them, and still get them to bed by 7:30 (my kindergartner has to get up at 6 A.M.!) all while my husband was still out-of-town.

I admit that I was tempted as I drove past Chick-fil-A. But, I did not cave and the really unfortunate thing was that when we finally got home I realized the casserole recipe was supposed to take 1 hour and 45 minutes to make! Clearly, that was not an option. And clearly, it was my own fault for overlooking some very important details when I selected the recipe in the first place. So at that point in the evening, I had no choice other than to improvise … big time.

Homemade chicken casserole with green beans and almonds on top.

First of all, the recipe (which was from Eating Well Magazine) called for wild rice, which takes 45 – 50 minutes to make … so that was obviously not an option. Never in my life have I been so thankful for owning “instant” brown rice. I think a few people even gave me a hard time about this purchase from Wal-Mart a few weeks ago, but I obviously knew there would be some sort of situation where I would need rice, instantly! And by the way … instant or not if the rice is brown it is still 100% whole grain.

Next, the recipe directed me to make a homemade “cream of mushroom soup” type mixture. And I am so glad I did. Who doesn’t have an old recipe hidden away somewhere that calls for “cream of mushroom soup”? And (don’t be shy) who still buys and uses the store-bought version? Have you read the ingredients? Just checking :) I promise to post the recipe for this homemade version very soon because it was really good!

Luckily, after making the soup mixture, everything ended up working out nicely because I sort of ignored a big chunk of their recipe and instead just mixed together the rice, chicken, and soup. I threw it into a casserole dish and topped it with green beans and sliced almonds (per their suggestion). It didn’t take long to bake and then voila … a one hour and 45-minute recipe was out of the oven and ready to eat after only 40 minutes total. While it was baking I took the time to bathe my girls, and then after all three of us savored the meal I got them to bed no more than 10 minutes late. Now that is what I call record time!

On another note, I did at least do something according to plan this week. On Monday, I made the vegetarian enchilada dish topped with homemade tomatillo salsa and cheese. My husband and I really enjoyed this dinner … our children, not so much. Oh well, that just meant more leftovers for us adults to enjoy the next day for lunch. I also made the chicken in the crockpot as planned on Tuesday (with a side of mashed potatoes and maple glazed carrots). And let me tell you, after all of the cooking I’ve done this week I’ve got one thing top of mind … I cannot wait to go out to dinner on Saturday to get a break from my kitchen! I will most certainly do everything in my power to make sure nothing gets in the way of that plan.

Vegetarian enchilada dish topped with homemade tomatillo salsa and cheese on a plate.
Crockpot chicken, mashed potatoes, and maple glazed carrots on a plate.

Budget Day 49: A Short Hiatus

November 22, 2010

As we approach the halfway mark of our little project, I want to announce that we are going to take a short 2-week hiatus from eating real food on a budget. The break will only be from the budget part, of course, not eating real food :). Like a lot of you, we will be celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with family, but once that is over we are also lucky enough to be going on a fun little trip. In honor of our 10-year-wedding anniversary, my husband and I are going to escape to Argentina for a bit … sans kids!

Exploring the cuisine of a new culture is one of the many things I look forward to on a trip like this, so my plan is to simply enjoy our meals rather than blog about every little detail. I’ll definitely be taking lots of pictures though, and will share some of the highlights when we return. Let’s just hope the language barrier doesn’t make it too hard to seek out the most delicious real food we can find once we are there!

Upon our return, I will be picking things right back up where we left off with “Budget Day 50” on Monday, December 6. And if all goes well with preparing for our trip I may set up one or two automated little articles to be posted in my absence … although I won’t be around to answer emails or comments from those posts during our vacation. Every girl deserves a break, right?

So, just to wrap things up properly, here is how we finished out week 7 with only 12 cents left. It was a pretty simple week without too many purchases for once …

  • Milk: $27.97
  • Local chicken (that I put in our freezer before starting our budget): $15.00
  • Earth Fare: $81.50
  • Harris Teeter: $0.41 (a banana)

We also had a house guest this weekend so I did end up buying a couple of extra things out of our separate (and unreported) entertaining fund from the farmer’s market on Saturday morning. Some weeks I feel like I can barely feed the four of us much less provide proper meals for an extra adult! Our house guest was kind enough to treat the four of us to a nice dinner out at Rooster’s last night in return though, which was of course delicious and very much appreciated!

I should also report that we used some of our $20/week restaurant funds at the tail end of week 6 (this was week 7), which leaves us with $52.07 left in that envelope. We purchased some pre-made sushi from Earth Fare last weekend, which we took on a nice little family picnic. And oh how I love any break I can get from cooking and cleaning in our kitchen! Well, I hope everyone has an absolutely wonderful and tasty Thanksgiving holiday. We will see you on the flip side.

Budget Day 52: Back to the Grind

December 9, 2010

White fish with a side of sweet potato pancakes and greens on a plate.

Okay, so I am totally still in vacation mode and was feeling way too lazy to come up with an exciting dinner plan for the week. I actually barely came up with a plan at all. My hope is since I am admitting this right up front that I will hereby be “excused” from my lack of creativity this week! My non-plan simply consists of some dinner ideas that we could make at some point over the next few days (like burritos and chili), but we are by no means committed to anything.

So far we had fish for dinner with sweet potato pancakes and greens (pictured) on Tuesday night and bean/pork burritos with homemade whole-wheat tortillas tonight. Everything’s gone off without a hitch, so I am pleased to admit that flying by the seat of our pants seems to be working so far. I got the seafood from Earth Fare on Tuesday morning along with some other items that cost a total of $62.75 …

Groceries from Earth Fare that include produce, raisins, frozen blueberries, peanut butter, nuts, fresh flounder, and more.
  • Cashews $8.07
  • Dried dates $3.05
  • Oats $2.40
  • Peanut butter $3.43
  • Peanuts $1.29
  • Butter $4.49
  • Frozen blueberries $3.99
  • Chili powder $2.98
  • Oregano $2.98
  • Two raisin canisters $1.69 (each)
  • Unsweetened coconut $2.79
  • Peach jelly $4.19
  • Sea salt $1.98
  • Apples $1.91
  • Bananas $1.28
  • Grapes $3.19
  • Lemon $0.33
  • Fresh flounder $9.79

I also thought it would be nice to stock up on a few locally grown/raised items after being out of town for two weeks. I normally go to the Matthew’s Farmers Market in south Charlotte on Saturdays, but their schedule doesn’t do you much good when you get back into town on a Sunday. Rather than waiting a week to shop locally, I decided to try the Atherton Market near downtown (which is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays).

It is a little bit of a drive for me, but it was fun to explore some new vendors and also not have to set my alarm to get there (like we do for the Matthews Market!). The Atherton Market is fairly new, but I think they are on the right track. It is not huge by any standards, but it has quite the variety of vendors and follows the same “growers only” philosophy as Matthews … which is the only type of market where I like to shop!

I was most excited to learn that they have a seafood vendor (woohoo! local seafood!) and a vendor that carries lamb. We hardly ever eat lamb, but thanks to some inspiration from our Argentina trip, we were thinking that rack of lamb would be just lovely for Christmas dinner. The only problem is that I didn’t know where to get local lamb … until now!

They also had the standard produce vendors (some of which still had greenhouse tomatoes and bell peppers available) as well as a cooking demo and some that didn’t even sell food but instead specialized in knitting or jewelry products if you are into that sort of thing. So now I have two places on my list that are worthwhile to stop by if I am close to downtown … Atherton Market and Hillbilly Produce. I think they’re both worth checking out if you are in the Charlotte area!

Here’s what I spent $17.69 on at Atherton yesterday …

Produce, eggs, and ground pork purchased from a local farmer's market in North Carolina.
  • Eggs
  • Half a bag of spinach
  • Mushrooms
  • Ground pork
  • Tomatoes

Budget Day 57: Baby, It’s Cold Outside

December 14, 2010

I don’t know about you, but we are FREEZING here in Charlotte. Literally, freezing. At the bus stop in the mornings we’ve been experiencing unseasonably cold temps down in the teens, which is hard to deal with when you have Southern blood! And during these cold spells, the last thing I’d want my girls to miss out on is hot chocolate, because nothing cures cold fingers and toes better than some good ol’ hot chocolate. I am happy to report that it can easily be done even when you only eat real food and even when you are doing it on a tight budget. Just forget Swiss Miss and look at that picture … yum!

Two decorative cups of homemade mocha hot chocolate.

So anyway, I am sure there are many ways to make it, but my way is to mix a little unsweetened cocoa and 100% pure maple syrup together (which is the same concoction that I add to my shot of espresso and hot milk to make a “mocha”). Everyone’s taste buds are different so you may prefer more or less syrup, but I use a ½ teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa with about a teaspoon of maple syrup for a small kid-size cup. I then add warm milk and, on this occasion (which is pictured), I also whipped up some cream which my dad luckily left in my fridge last week. My girls (okay, and I included) were just in heaven with this special little winter treat!

In regards to our last budget week, it pretty much ended on Thursday because that’s when I basically ran out of money. It is amazing how easily and quickly I can spend that $125! It would be nice if I actually had some money left over at the end of the week for once, but don’t hold your breath on that one. As I reported a few days ago, I did most of my shopping at Earth Fare, and I also got a few things at the Atherton Farmer’s Market. I had a little bit of money left after that and spent it at Trader Joe’s (on some bananas, an onion, and cheese), Great Harvest (on a loaf of bread), and Harris Teeter (another onion and more bananas!). So this is how last week totaled up …

  • Earth Fare $62.75
  • Atherton Market $17.69
  • Milk delivery $29.97
  • Trader Joe’s $6.35
  • Harris Teeter (2 visits to HT) $2.59
  • Great Harvest $5.00

We were also “winging it” last week as far as our dinner plan went, and the non-plan of course wasn’t perfect. We had to run to the store three times for little things that we suddenly needed, but we more than survived. This is what we ate each night …

Pork, rice, black bean, and spinach burritos wrapped in whole-wheat tortillas.
  • Monday: Sautéed flounder, sweet potato pancakes (with raisins), and greens from our garden
  • Tuesday: Pork, rice, black bean, and spinach burritos wrapped in whole-wheat tortillas (pictured)
  • Wednesday: Pork and bean chili with whole-grain cornbread
  • Thursday: Leftover chili
  • Friday: Quesadillas filled with mushrooms, spinach, onion, corn, and Monterey Jack cheese (our girls loved these and once their plates were empty they were surprised to learn that they’d just enjoyed some spinach and mushrooms!)
  • Saturday: We had dinner club at a friends house…we love those evenings!
  • Sunday: Defrosted matzo ball soup from our freezer

For lunch, we had PB&J’s, hummus & cheese sandwiches, and leftovers, among other things. Breakfast consisted of our beloved granola cereal as well as some banana pancakes and crepes that I made over the weekend. I am only on day one of this budget week and already almost broke again … what else is new! More on that later.

Budget Day 59: Complete Waste of Time

December 16, 2010

It is very important to me that I am efficient … always. I like to put things away in the most optimal order so I don’t backtrack. I often multitask to get things done faster. I like to be quick if I am shopping on a mission with a list. And last, but not least, when driving somewhere I like to get from A to B as efficiently as possible (while still staying safe of course). So when I decided to try Lowes Foods for the first time this week and it ended being a complete waste of my time (30 minutes to be exact) … I couldn’t help but be irritated!

I know a lot of people think Earth Fare is expensive, and as much as I agree that I should be trying other stores, there is something to be said for a grocery store that provides you with the following (even if it is sometimes at a slightly higher price) …

  • The ability to know where almost everything is in the store (thanks to numerous previous visits)
  • The confidence to know that they will have everything on your list (including a fresh-looking organic version)
  • Employees that can provide you with complimentary services (like cutting down a block of cheese to make it cheaper) and answer your questions quickly and accurately

When I walked into Lowes Foods I already knew that I didn’t have all the time in the world (if I was going to be on time for the afternoon school bus). And I couldn’t easily find their organic produce—if they did in fact have any—so I decided to ask an employee. This individual didn’t even know if they had organic produce (?) and made an attempt to locate the produce manager over the phone after unsuccessfully searching for him on the floor.

Maybe this was an isolated incident for their store, but it took (what felt like) 10 minutes to have my very simple question answered. And once I got the answer it was no wonder I didn’t see their “organic section” because it was TINY with only a few fruits and no vegetables! I immediately knew I was not going to try to shop my list there … and oh how I was wishing I was at Earth Fare even if it meant spending a few extra bucks in exchange for convenience.

I wanted to be fair though and not bolt right away. So I at least did a spot check with one other simple thing on my list … a can of black beans. They do have an organic store brand and it did offer black beans, but it was packed full of sodium (of course) and no cheaper than a very low sodium can of organic beans from Earth Fare. So that was it for me. I did pick up a bag of slightly old (that sounds awful doesn’t it?) conventional limes for 50 cents. I figured it couldn’t hurt to spend 50 whole cents on it because I always seem to forget to buy limes when planning to make quesadillas or fajitas. So I thought it would help to have a dozen or so on hand just in case … but that was all I bought!

I then got some much-needed relief by quickly and efficiently shopping my list at Earth Fare. Since figuring out that a few of our weekly staples are cheaper at Trader Joe’s I’ve simply been buying everything from Earth Fare except for those items (which includes cheese, nuts, yogurt, coffee, and now honey although TJ’s honey is not local). This does mean I have to go to two stores (aside from the farmer’s market and bread store), but I’ve been warming up to this new game plan. And it is actually very much working for me. So I am not sure what your expectations are with the remaining 40 days or so of this project, but don’t have any high hopes that I am going to keep trying new stores!

Below is what I spent $48.48 on at Earth Fare the other day. And I should mention that every single item was organic except for the honeydew melon and the chicken (although the chicken was local and also Earth Fare “all-natural” brand which is very close to organic) …

Groceries from Earth Far that include fresh produce, rolled oats, butter, flour, and chicken.
  • Rolled oats $1.84
  • Sesame seeds $2.41
  • Butter $4.49
  • Grapefruits free (thanks to coupon)
  • Flour $2.50
  • Black beans $1.39
  • Local chicken breast $3.55
  • 2 apples $3.99
  • Avocado $1.66
  • Bananas $1.07
  • Carrots $2.69
  • Cauliflower $4.79
  • Cilantro $1.79
  • Honeydew melon $1.52
  • Garlic $0.71
  • Red grapes $3.42
  • Lemon $0.50
  • Green onions $0.77
  • Yellow onion $1.17
  • Orange $0.66
  • Pear $1.22
  • Spinach $2.49
  • Tomatoes $3.14

Below are the “staples” that I picked up at Trader Joe’s. I hate that we ran out of coffee and espresso at the same time. They are both expensive items that provide very little sustenance, but they are oh so important during this cold, cold weather that we’ve been having!

Groceries from Trader Joe's that include coffee, nuts, cheese, yogurt, frozen corn and blueberries, and honey.
  • Coffee beans $6.49
  • Espresso $7.99
  • Cashews $5.49
  • Frozen corn $1.69
  • Plain yogurt $2.99
  • Honey $4.49
  • Frozen blueberries $1.99
  • Monterey Jack cheese $2.58
  • Cheddar $4.29
  • Swiss Gruyere $3.13

Budget Day 63: Call Me Scrooge

December 20, 2010

I already find it challenging to keep my children’s intake of sweets to a minimum on a regular basis, but during the month of December? It is almost downright impossible to keep things under control. A month or two ago we decided that the best balance for us would be to (of course) stick to eating real food as much as possible, but to also allow ourselves one “treat” of our choice over the weekend. The last thing I want is for my daughters to start raiding the pantries at their friends’ houses after not getting any junk food at home! Plus, most things in moderation are okay.

Now, it is no secret that I have a sweet tooth myself, and (not that anybody’s asked) all I’ve wanted for my “special weekend treat” is one darn donut! And have I gotten to take my girls out to Krispy Kreme to watch the donuts being made and enjoy eating them together hot off the conveyer belt? No, because it, unfortunately, has not yet been up to me what the weekend treat will be. The school or birthday party or other social gatherings always seems to be making that decision for us.

You see, if my girls are invited to a birthday party, the cake (or parfait or whatever it is) automatically becomes their special treat for the weekend. And since some sort of social event seems to be going on almost every week, I eventually stopped holding out for that donut, but unfortunately, already put my eye on a new prize … Christmas cookies. And not just any Christmas cookies, the homemade from scratch kind that take all day to roll out, cut out, bake, and decorate with super sugary icing. The point is, that our treats are so few and far between it would be nice if at least once in a blue moon I could decide (and even make) the delectable treat for us!

Which brings me to why I am feeling like such a scrooge. With the holiday treat overload between school and other parties, I could not even imagine what it would be like if I was also providing some kind of holiday cookie or junk food at home. So when an annual cookie exchange party with some friends came up my immediate thought was “what in the world would I do with 8 little bags of cookies in my house?” Yikes.

But, at the same time, I certainly didn’t want to miss out on a fun evening with my girlfriends. So at the risk of making them think I was a little loony, I asked if I could go, but not do the exchange part. Luckily, my friends know me well enough to not judge me too much. I do admit to feeling like a little bit of a scrooge though! It certainly has become quite a challenge to try to escape the candy, cookie, and sugar part of this holiday.

In other news, today ends our 9th week of sticking to real food on a budget. Of course, as I mentioned, we’ve had our occasional non-real food treats, but the fact of the matter is I have not used one penny of our $125/week on anything that doesn’t follow our original real food rules. Here’s how this week wrapped up with a whopping 7 cents left …

  • Milk $29.97
  • Earth Fare $48.48
  • Trader Joes $41.95 + $0.30 (for a banana)
  • Lowes Foods $0.51
  • Sandwich bread from Great Harvest $5.00 (plus we got a free loaf with our frequent buyer card!)

I hate that I didn’t have any money left for the farmer’s market this weekend. I always like to have a good supply of local produce on hand, but unfortunately, I spent a little more than I should have at Trader Joe’s and Earth Fare. It was a tough week to put aside money for the market when I had to spend  $15 to replenish our coffee and espresso supply. Other than that we did okay though. This is what we ate for dinner each night …

Black bean croquettes, brown rice, and quesadillas on a plate.
  • Monday: Cheesy chicken macaroni dish (from my new Eating Well on a Budget cookbook)
  • Tuesday: My husband was out of town so we had pancakes (and fruit) for dinner!
  • Wednesday: Black bean croquettes, brown rice, and quesadillas (pictured … the croquettes were also from the same new cookbook and they were good)
  • Thursday: Butternut squash ravioli (I just made some dough and used leftover frozen filling from the last time we had this dish)
  • Friday: The adults ate at a party, the kids had leftover ravioli, a little bit of quesadilla, and frozen peas
  • Saturday: The adults ate at a party (again!), the kids had baked sweet potato, whole wheat macaroni noodles with butter/cheese/salt, and more frozen peas
  • Sunday: Quiche and a side of spinach

We are hosting Christmas this year and expecting some out-of-town guests in a few days. So this upcoming budget week might be a little tricky, but I will do my best to keep things straight.

Budget Day 72: Hosting the Holidays

December 29, 2010

It’s been a little bit of a challenge to track our real food budget over the Christmas holiday … especially since we hosted this year. I tell you what, I already felt like our real food diet caused me to cook and clean and run our dishwasher all of the time, but hosting family for the holidays took things to a whole new level. I of course had some extra helpers, but I also probably took on more cooking than I should have over the last week. I am feeling a little burnt out, to say the least!

Regardless of how many dirty dishes we went through, the food highlight this holiday season was definitely the local lamb loin that we had on Christmas Day (I wish I had a picture!). We’d never cooked lamb before so we were a little concerned about how it would turn out, but my husband (who can cook by the way) made a rare appearance at our stove and managed to exceed all of our expectations. His simple preparation consisted of cooking the meat in a cast-iron skillet with some olive oil, garlic, red wine, & rosemary … and it was delicious. Even our 3-year-old, who hardly even eats meat, was digging in. I was beyond shocked by her response (but of course pleased!).

The lamb, among other things, of course, came out of a separate entertaining budget, but prior to the arrival of our guests last week I attempted to stick to our regular $125 a week budget. And shortly after the week started I ran out of money faster than ever. I only shopped at two stores in addition to our local milk delivery (which was $40.93 this time because I experimented with ordering some local eggs and butter) and this is what I got …

For $68.56 from Earth Fare:

Groceries from Earth Fare that included fresh produce, cheese, meat, pretzels, crackers, flour, and more.
  • Rolled oats $3.80
  • Peanut butter $3.47
  • Brie – free (thanks to an Earth Fare coupon)!
  • Sour cream $1.49 (with coupon)
  • Pimento cheese – free (thanks to an Earth Fare coupon)!
  • Whole wheat flour $2.50
  • Olive oil spray $2.63 (with coupon)
  • Unsweetened coconut $2.79
  • Raisins $1.67
  • Pretzels $5.29
  • Triscuits $2.99 (with coupon)
  • Ground ginger bulk $3.02
  • Ground nutmeg bulk $4.55
  • Ground turkey $4.99
  • Apples $3.07
  • Bananas $1.62
  • Lemon $0.50
  • Mango $1.25
  • Mushrooms $2.99
  • Onions $2.49
  • Oranges $0.75
  • Asian pear $1.99
  • Pear comice $3.83
  • Spinach $3.87 (which I later returned…long story!)
  • Zucchini $1.56
  • Tomatoes $4.61

For $19.09 from Trader Joe’s:

  • Plain yogurt $2.99
  • Cheese $2.16
  • Frozen raspberries $3.69
  • Cheddar $4.29
  • Pumpkin seeds $5.49

Now as I previously mentioned (on day 59), I’ve been warming up to Trader Joe’s, but I must share that they were out of 2 things that I had on my very short shopping list. I actually wanted frozen organic blueberries (but had to get raspberries instead) and I also needed some canola oil, which they didn’t have at all. I know it was the busy holiday season, but it is hard for me to accept a grocery store that doesn’t have a single bottle of canola oil in stock!  Anyway, with the groceries that we did get, we had something that was a very special treat in this house … turkey burgers (albeit small ones!). And now that the holidays are behind us I look forward to getting things back to “normal” around here.

Turkey burgers, veggie pancakes, and fruit on a plate.

Budget Day 77: Ringing in the New Year

January 3, 2011

Plate of black-eyed peas for New Year's Day with a side of polenta and homemade stuffing.

I don’t know if I’ve been living under a rock or what, but I just sort of realized that it is tradition (for good luck) to eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day. I heard a friend mention it last year and then a few months ago our 5-year-old got a library book about this very topic (don’t you love it when your kids’ books teach you something!). So anyway, after reading this book my daughter was adamant about us eating black-eyed peas this year, and even though I am not a bean fan, there is something to be said for tradition. So I granted her wish by buying some fresh local beans from Earth Fare and then turning them over to my husband to cook.

Our New Year’s Day meal ended up being a little hodgepodge, but regardless, it was very much enjoyed by most everyone. Our picky 3-year-old wasn’t exactly a big fan of anything other than her polenta, but the rest of us enjoyed the peas (boiled in onion, bell pepper, water, and thyme) and sausage/dried apricot stuffing. It’s hard not to notice that all “traditional” holiday foods are what our family would consider to be “real foods”. That’s because most traditions have been around for centuries, and people only started manufacturing and eating highly processed food 50+ years ago! You know how I love to bring that up. :)

Homemade quiche in a pie dish.

So as we rung in a new year, we also closed out one of the final weeks of our Real Food on a Budget project. I can’t believe we have less than a month left! This past week was a fairly easy one though since we still had quite a bit of leftovers from hosting Christmas and house guests. I did still manage to spend almost every last penny of our $125 (imagine that … I am such a spender!).

Despite blowing through my budget, we did keep our dinners quite simple this week though…macaroni & cheesepizza, and quiche (pictured). My husband and I also managed to escape and go out to dinner alone one evening. We of course used some of our $20/week “eating out” budget for that, but there is still plenty of money left in that envelope since restaurant outings seem to be a rare occasion for us.

Here is how I spent our grocery money this week with only about 3 bucks left …

  • Earth Fare $73…even!
  • Local milk delivery $29.97
  • Farmer’s Market $12 (2 dozen eggs and spinach)
  • Target $7.13 (organic maple syrup)

Here is the $73 Earth Fare breakdown … although I forgot to take a picture of my purchase this time. Shame on me!

  • Rolled oats $3.37
  • Hard red wheat berries $2.64 (to use in my new wheat grinder)
  • Pastry wheat berries $2.26
  • Mozzarella cheese $3.69
  • Unsalted butter $4.49
  • Cheddar $4.89
  • Monterey Jack cheese $3.39
  • Frozen corn $3.39
  • Baking soda $0.68
  • Masa Harina $3.49 (whole grain corn flour)
  • Whole-wheat pasta elbows $1.99
  • Pizza sauce $2.99
  • All natural pork sausage $4.05
  • Apples $3.24
  • Bananas $2.07
  • Broccoli $6.79
  • Celery $2.49
  • Cut honeydew melon $1.55
  • Lemon $0.33
  • Baby bella mushrooms $3.29
  • Onion $2.46
  • Oranges $3.00
  • Pears Bartlett $2.96
  • Pear Comice $0.57
  • Fresh black-eyed peas $1.50

Budget Day 79: New Recipes

January 3, 2011

Long ago I had a goal to try at least one new recipe a week. I did okay with this for a while, but then I quickly fell off the wagon shortly after we cut processed food. I of course still try a lot of new recipes, but there have been plenty of weeks where it seems like too much effort to select and make something new. It is just so easy to stick to a simple rotation of dinners that you know your kids will eat. Our typical rotation goes something like this … quesadillas (or anything that resembles a quesadilla and gets wrapped up in a tortilla with cheese!), quiche, some sort of pasta dish, pizza, and any kind of breakfast for dinner.

A plate of asparagus prepared with three different toppings.

I made a few 2011 New Year’s resolutions and, once again, I am going to try to go back to one (totally) new recipe a week! So I started off with a bang this week by making a vegetable that we hadn’t eaten in so long that my girls didn’t even know what it was … asparagus. I’ve mentioned before how important I think a child’s “first impression” is of new food so the pressure was on for me to make some super appealing asparagus. After a little brainstorming session with our Facebook fans (thank you!), I was torn between all of the great ideas.  So I ended up making asparagus 3-ways, and it actually turned out to be the perfect way to introduce something new to our kids.

I presented the pictured dish … asparagus topped with cheese (brie), asparagus with roasted garlic & Parmesan cheese, and asparagus covered in an onion/orange sauce. I told our girls that we were having a contest to see which one would be the reigning favorite. There was one catch though … no one could vote until everybody tried all three (wink wink!). So after our picky 3-year-old went through her whole “I don’t liiiiike it” (before she even tried it of course), everyone finally had a taste. And the winner was asparagus topped with the melted brie! Both girls even ate a few more bites after the “contest” was over, and since things are off to such a good start I may just stay motivated with my new recipe quest.

Here’s our full dinner plan for the week …

  • Monday: Chicken in slow cooker, mashed potatoes, and asparagus
  • Tuesday: Leftover chicken over pasta with red bell pepper, spinach, and a marsala cream sauce
  • Wednesday: Pork ribs and brown rice / veggie patties
  • Thursday: Quesadillas with the leftover pork
  • Friday: Peanut squash soup with whole-wheat biscuits

I still have to buy a few more things from Trader Joe’s later this week, but in the meantime, below is yesterday’s $62.05 purchase from Earth Fare. And speaking of Earth Fare, there is one quick thing I want to mention for those in Charlotte. I will be leading a “2011: Keeping it Real” discussion at the Earth Fare in Ballantyne on Wednesday, January 12 at 6:00 P.M. Please join us for this free event and bring your thoughts, ideas, and questions in regards to cutting out processed food. We will be handing out free “real food” goodie bags and samples! If you are planning to attend call the store at 704.926.1201 to register.

Here’s what I purchased …

Groceries from Earth Fare that include fresh produce, frozen blueberries, brown rice, shredded coconut, sour cream, and heavy cream.
  • Peanut butter $3.74
  • Wheat berries $7.14
  • Unsalted butter $4.49
  • Heavy cream $1.00 (with coupon)
  • Sour cream $1.49 (with coupon)
  • Frozen blueberries $3.98
  • Brown rice snaps $3.49
  • All fruit spread $4.19
  • Shredded coconut $2.79
  • Brown rice $5.99
  • Apples $2.45
  • Asparagus $4.79
  • Bananas $1.94
  • Honeydew melon $1.20
  • Garlic $0.72
  • Onions $1.45
  • Parsley $1.79
  • Pears $2.71
  • Red bell pepper $2.50
  • Sweet potato $1.35
  • Zucchini $1.61

Budget Day 85: Scrounging for Dollars

January 11, 2011

It was slightly embarrassing, but I had to return the only unopened grocery item I had on hand to be able to “afford” a main ingredient for our dinner on Friday. Sure, you could say it was poor planning on my part, but regardless, I desperately needed a butternut squash and only had two bucks left. So after a little brainstorming session with myself, I came up with a plan to get more money. And I was thrilled to see that one of the more expensive items ($5.99 bag of brown rice) that I purchased from Earth Fare earlier in the week was still unopened!

Homemade squash peanut soup topped with cilantry in a decorative bowl.

After I made the return I was armed with a whopping $8 and change, which allowed me to get the few things I needed. So I bought the squash and some cilantro for the recipe, a few bananas, and a very small amount of rolled oats (which we were out of and I often need to make oatmeal for my daughters). I went home and in no time at all made the pictured squash peanut soup (topped with cilantro) along with some biscuits, and it turned out so delicious! The best part was that the soup was super easy to make (my favorite kind of recipe … yummy AND easy!) although our kids did not like it one bit. This shocked us because we were all but licking our bowls, but I plan to post and share this recipe soon anyway because of how much we adults loved it.

Pork ribs made in the slow cooker and brown rice patties on a plate.

This soup recipe sure helped make my whole “new recipe” quest worth it, but I did also have a big recipe flop earlier in the week. I made some local pork ribs in our slow cooker and to go with it I tried a new “brown rice patty” recipe that none of us liked. This brings me to the reason that I don’t like trying new recipes on a budget. When money is tight and something doesn’t work out you feel like you just wasted perfectly good ingredients. My husband assured me though that he liked the soup so much that it was worth it to try new things (even if there were a few recipe duds in-between).

Homemade pizza biscuits, frozen peas, and a side of applesauce.

Once the weekend arrived I didn’t have any more recipes planned so I had to be creative with leftovers and what we had on hand (which wasn’t much). My husband and I had some of the leftover squash soup on Saturday, but for our girls, I sliced open the leftover biscuits and made “biscuit pizzas” for them with some sauce and cheese that we had in the fridge (with frozen peas and applesauce on the side).

By the time Sunday rolled around we didn’t really have very much food left in the kitchen, and we certainly didn’t have anything special enough to make for our big six-year-old’s birthday dinner! So we decided to go out to eat. Since we rarely go out we had almost $100 built up in our “restaurant fund” and what better way to use it than for a celebration? We combined that money with a  Groupon and went to a local place called Zink (that occasionally uses local food). Our meal ended up being absolutely delicious. And our daughter’s birthday also gave us a chance to splurge on some cake this weekend … which was, of course, the perfect occasion for such a special treat!

So this is how our budget week wrapped up yesterday (including 5 extra dollars that I was able to spend thanks to some leftover change from previous weeks) …

  • Earth Fare $62.05
  • Trader Joe’s $14.59 (cashews, sunflower seeds, honey, cheese)
  • Local milk delivery $27.97
  • Local pork ribs (out of our freezer bought before the budget) $11.25
  • Local chicken (out of our freezer) $15
  • Earth Fare $2.45 (after using the rice credit)

One thing I often neglect to mention in these posts are all of the things that I want (and attempt) to buy at the store, but cannot. At the beginning of our budget project, I pictured myself walking around the store all organized with my list and calculator so I could keep track as I went along. I actually tried this once only to have the calculator reset somewhere in the middle of me making sure my 3-year-old didn’t knock food off the shelf. So now I simply guess at what I can afford to purchase (and I am usually too optimistic) so I am always giving items back to the cashier before I finish checking out.

This week the things I wanted to buy, but had to give back included: paprika, Worcestershire sauce, a loaf of bread, cooking spray, peach jelly (my daughters’ favorite flavor … although we do already have mixed berry), sunflower seed butter (for the nut-free school), and whole-wheat macaroni/elbow noodles just to have on hand. No matter how much I plan ahead, I have to prioritize every time I shop in anticipation of something having to wait until next time. Did I mention I only have 15 days left on this budget (and counting)!?!

Budget Day 87: Almost Done!

January 12, 2011

So here we are with only 13 days left of our real food on a budget project. I haven’t stopped shopping at Earth Fare (which some people think is expensive), and I most definitely have not stopped ordering our unbelievably fresh and delicious local ($30 a week) milk either. And I can’t help but notice … has this project failed in any way shape or form? Here we are successfully buying organic, local, whole grain, non-processed foods for a family of four on less money than we would get if on food stamps.

Granted, we have some wonderful resources at our disposal like plenty of places to shop for food, some decent cooking skills, and plenty of kitchen tools. And I will be the first to admit that I’ve been frustrated (and broke) at times, and we’ve had to cut down on our meat consumption as well as our “desserts” (which were just about cut out altogether). The point though is that we’ve not overspent even by a penny and we’ve not starved ourselves, and we’ve by no means had to compromise by eating highly processed cheap crap to stay within budget. It may be too soon to celebrate, but I can’t help but wonder how many people doubted that this could even be done???

So on that note … here’s what I’ve been doing with our $125 this week. Our area of North Carolina got hit with a pretty big snowstorm early Monday morning so I actually went out and spent almost my entire weekly budget on groceries the night before the storm. And I am so glad I did because we are on day 3 of schools being closed and not leaving the house (due to the icy road conditions!). So this was the perfect week for me to be organized and have a dinner plan.

It was a little bit of a struggle to actually get everything from the store though because (you know how people are before big snowstorms) a lot of the shelves looked almost empty on Sunday night! I was lucky to still be able to get most of what I needed, but Earth Fare was completely out of the “free with a coupon” chicken, which threw me off quite a bit. Since my meals were all so meticulously planned (around that chicken) I ended up having to spend $10 on some different chicken that I was not planning to buy. Ten unexpected dollars is a lot when you don’t have very much to spend! But, I just had to suck it up because I was short on time and knew I would not be braving the storm to go out and get it the next day.

So this is what we’ve been eating for dinner this week with our super expensive chicken…

Homemade chicken and mushroom curry with cashews and brown rice.
  • Monday: Chicken and mushroom curry with cashews and brown rice (pictured)
  • Tuesday: Quesadillas (shocker – I know we eat this all of the time!) using the leftover pork shank from our dinner out on Sunday … yum
  • Wednesday: Chicken nuggets (with the other chicken breast), green beans, and baked sweet potato fries
  • Thursday: Free kids night at Earth Fare
  • Friday: TBD
A variety of homemade muffins with surprise fillings on the inside.

Since the kids have been home from school every day this week we’ve branched out from our usual “granola cereal” breakfast and have instead been making crepespancakes, omelets, oatmeal, and a variety of muffins with surprise fillings on the inside (pictured). Lunch this week hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary for us with things like smoothieshummus on crackers, cheese, egg salad, fresh fruit, nuts, dinner leftovers, and anything we can find and wrap up in a tortilla.

As I mentioned, I could not use my free chicken coupon at Earth Fare, but I did luckily have a $5 off coupon (for getting one of their New Year’s Resolution cards) and that certainly helped. So after using that coupon this is what I got for a total of $93.22 …

Groceries from Earth Fare that include produce, chicken, oats, cheese, crackers, and more.
  • Almonds $5.75
  • Oats $3.43
  • Peanut butter $3.70
  • Hard red wheat berries $2.53 (to make flour with my new wheat grinder)
  • Unsalted butter $4.49
  • Cheddar $4.89
  • Eggs $3.68
  • Heavy cream $1.99
  • Monterey Jack cheese $3.39
  • Cream cheese $2.29
  • String cheese $4.39
  • Plain yogurt $3.58
  • Frozen blueberries $3.00
  • Frozen mixed berries $3.00
  • Whole-wheat panko bread crumbs $3.79 (only 4 ingredients…I didn’t have to make my own!)
  • Canned diced tomatoes $1.99
  • Rice cakes $3.39
  • Triscuits $3.99
  • Chicken breasts $10.86
  • Apples $2.54
  • Bananas $1.47
  • Green beans $3.99
  • Mushrooms $3.29
  • Bag of onions $3.49
  • Pears $3.01
  • Potatoes $2.01
  • Tangerines $2.36

Budget Day 94: An Empty Refrigerator

January 19, 2011

I can’t believe it. This is my last full week of only having $125 to spend on groceries! And just to clarify, we will absolutely still be on a budget when all of this is over. I will probably just give myself a slight increase … maybe around $150 a week. And I do think the extra $25 will make a big difference. Plus, I won’t be “charging” myself for items out of our freezer that were purchased pre-budget, and I will no longer be reporting out on every single food item that I buy. So overall, I am looking forward to feeling a lot less pressure! And I do hope 100 days was a long enough period of time for people to realize that this absolutely can be done.

Homemade chicken nuggets, baked purple sweet potato fries with homemade honey mustard.

Anyway, back to our final week, although I should probably wrap up last week first. As I previously mentioned, I pretty much spent our entire food budget last week at Earth Fare prior to a big snowstorm that hit Charlotte. And with those groceries, we managed to stick to our original dinner plan, which included the pictured chicken nuggets and baked purple sweet potato fries with homemade honey mustard—yum. My total spend last week came to $124.09 and this is how it was divided up …

  • Earth Fare $93.22
  • Local milk delivery $29.97
  • Harris Teeter $0.45 (for fresh ginger root that they were out of at EF)
  • Earth Fare $0.45 (for a couple of bananas that I bought later in the week)

One thing I have been missing the last couple of weeks is shopping at the farmer’s market! I absolutely love buying local produce and meats, and I usually set aside money each week just for locally grown/raised products. Unfortunately, the few winter markets we’ve had here so far offered very slim pickings (due to unseasonably cold weather), and now that we are in the dead of winter they’ve changed the market schedule to only twice a month.

We ended up going out of town to visit my parents this past weekend, which meant I missed one of the only two markets this month! Sure, I could drive up to the Atherton Market, which is open 3 days a week, but it is a little bit of a hike for me, and I didn’t think I could fit in a trek downtown after being away for the long weekend.

The inside of an almost empty refrigerator.

So back to the budget for this week, which started on Monday. One of the advantages of us being away for a few days was that I didn’t have to squeeze any more dinners out of our budget over the weekend. But the major disadvantage was that we came home to a completely empty refrigerator. And I am not exaggerating … with the exception of some condiments and a few blocks of cheese it was practically empty.

When we left town there were still quite a few dinner and other leftovers in there, but I had to throw them all away when we got back since everything was past its prime. And even after going by the grocery store on our way home from the airport yesterday my fridge still looks ridiculously empty. I just had to take this picture to prove that I am not exaggerating about this. And keep in mind, this picture was taken AFTER I bought (what I hope is) a week’s worth of groceries! Except for the milk, which comes tomorrow. Yikes.

Believe it or not, these are the dinners I plan to make this week with the few items out of our fridge …

  • Monday: We were out of town
  • Tuesday: We bought pre-made brown rice sushi from Earth Fare (out of our eating out budget) on our way home from the airport
  • Wednesday: Fish, artichokes, and a side of pasta
  • Thursday: Pot luck dinner with friends … I will feed the kids something easy like leftover pasta from the night before or quesadillas
  • Friday: Almond crusted chicken, sweet potatoes, and some sort of spinach or green bell pepper side item

I also need to get into the kitchen and start cooking some lunch and snack items to help fill up our fridge again. Some other perishable items I could make this week are tortillas, maybe some hummus, egg salad (which would look nice in there although I bet it wouldn’t last long), possibly some more muffins, and a cold pasta salad might also be fun to experiment with as well. So I need to get on that because I hate empty refrigerators! Later this week I will share some more details on what I actually bought from the store yesterday.

Budget Day 97: Some Mistakes

January 23, 2011

Our final week is coming to a close, so this could very well be my last little bullet point list of all my groceries! I plan to keep blogging though … I am just not quite sure what the frequency will be yet. Speaking of, if you have any topic ideas that you would love to hear about please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’ve already gotten some great ideas from the Facebook fans, which is quickly turning into a growing list of things that I plan to tackle once this is over.

Anyway, as I previously mentioned, I did most of my shopping for this week on Tuesday when we were on our way home from the airport. Not only were we fresh off the plane (it was just me alone with my 3-year-old and 6-year-old by the way … my husband was on a separate business trip), but I was also trying to squeeze in a quick trip to Earth Fare AND the bread store before taking my daughters to their weekly gymnastics class. This was all before we even made it home to drop off our luggage. A case of an overplanned mom? Absolutely. It was very much one of those days.

Needless to say, I was in a major hurry. I even forgot to feed myself some lunch (thankfully, I at least remembered to feed my kids!) so my lightheadedness was making my shopping trip at Earth Fare even more difficult. I had at least made out my grocery list in advance under much better circumstances, but as I’ve said before, I haven’t memorized how much stuff costs so I never know if I can buy everything on my list (I admit it—this is a big weakness of mine that for some reason I don’t try to fix!).

I suppose this shopping trip is probably representative of what a lot of other moms and busy people experience regularly though. We want real food and we want it cheap, but we don’t have 2 or 3 uninterrupted hours to peruse the aisles of the grocery store to comparison shop and read labels. So as you can imagine, my rushed and hungry self made some unfortunate mistakes … BUT, I am happy to say that going over budget (or buying junk food) was definitely not one of those mistakes! Because no matter what, I refuse to fail this project! :)

Once I was home and all the aspects of our crazy day were finally over, I sat down and looked at my receipt. And I probably only looked at my receipt because I had to type it up for this blog post. So this was actually a good lesson for me that going forward when I get home from the store I should double-check that I spent my money wisely. And now that I was thinking clearly, some things on my receipt immediately jumped out at me as big mistakes.

The first mistake was the fact that I was in such a hurry I didn’t have time to go to Trader Joe’s like I normally do to save money on expensive items like cheese, nuts, and honey. Buying those particular items from Earth Fare this time easily cost me five or six more dollars than I normally would have spent somewhere else.

Homemade chocolate tortes rolled into balls.

My next mistake was that I must have been in a dream state when I put the ingredients for my chocolate torte recipe on the grocery list.  I like to roll these into the pictured powerball size and munch on them after every meal.  Sure, I love to satisfy my chocolate craving, but is it absolutely necessary? Unfortunately … .not. And I didn’t realize until I got home that I spent $10.87 on the pecans and another $4.39 on the dried pitted dates. Ooops … I am not sure why I thought I could afford to spend fifteen of my hundred or so dollars on a nice little dessert for myself. Luckily, neither of those packages had been opened by the time I figured this out because you know how I love to return stuff!

The last mistake I made was that I swear I had 3 coupons (not just 2), but I guess the one I had for cheese got overlooked or fell out of my cart or something. It was only for a fifty-cent savings, but still! I was too rushed to even notice until now. So after taking into consideration the twenty or so unnecessary dollars that I spent, my bill came to $108.43. So what did I do? Nothing other than have my husband return the unopened pecans and dates on my behalf. Not because I was embarrassed to do it myself, he just happened to be in the area … and boy does he hate it when I ask him to do stuff like that! LOL

So even though we have since returned two of the pictured items for a $15.57 credit (that I have not yet spent), here is everything that I originally bought for $108.43 on Tuesday when my girls and I rushed like a tornado through the store!

Groceries from Earth Fare that include fresh produce, pasta, frozen blueberries, canola oil, butter, eggs, and more.
  • Dried pitted dates $4.39
  • Pecan halves $10.87
  • Hard red wheat berries $5.33 (To make flour)
  • Unsalted butter $4.49
  • Cheddar $4.69
  • Eggs $3.68
  • Heavy cream $3.49 (with coupon)
  • Monterey Jack cheese $3.39
  • Frozen blueberries $3.00 (on sale)…oops these were already in the freezer and didn’t make the picture!
  • Canola oil $5.99 (with coupon)
  • Honey $7.49
  • Maple syrup $8.99 (on sale)
  • Whole-wheat pasta $1.99
  • Apples $4.28
  • Artichokes $7.50 (this is a special treat for us…all 4 of us LOVE artichokes!)
  • Bananas $2.29
  • Cantaloupe $1.17 (one of the few fruits my 3-year-old will easily eat)
  • Spinach $2.99
  • Lemons $1.00
  • Mango $2.00
  • Orange $0.66
  • Pears $2.42
  • Green bell peppers $2.58
  • Sweet potatoes $2.62
  • Mandarin oranges $1.98
  • Fresh wild caught cod $6.99

Also pictured is a $5 loaf of our beloved honey whole-wheat bread that we like to get from the Great Harvest bread store. So now that this week is coming to a close, I am not even sure if I am going to need to spend my recovered $15 on anything after all. I hope we didn’t go through all of that for nothing, but how great would it be to end this 100-day budget pledge with some money left over? We will just have to wait and see!

Budget Day 100: Victory!

January 26, 2011

The Leake family of four posing together.

I honestly can’t believe it. For 100 days, our family of four (pictured) survived on real, fresh, whole, organic, local, non-processed food for less money than we would have if we were on food stamps. At times, I truly doubted that this could be done. For only $125/week, we repeatedly enjoyed fresh local milk (which was delivered directly to our house) and food from both the local farmers’ market as well as (what some would consider to be) an upscale health food store, Earth Fare.

It’s not to say that there weren’t some (okay, maybe lots of) sacrifices, but we somehow found our way in the “tight” budget world and more than survived. As a reminder, and especially for those that are new here, check out the ten reasons why we cut out highly processed food in the first place (no matter the cost). And I would also love to remind everyone about some of the benefits we’ve personally experienced since changing our diets at the beginning of 2010 …

Health Benefits from Cutting Out Highly Processed Food

  • Our youngest daughter’s constipation was completely “cured” within 5 days of cutting out highly processed food. And things continue to be pretty regular in that department … for all of us actually (how embarrassing to share)!
  • In 2009, this same daughter suffered from five separate episodes of wheezing (due to mild asthma) as well as croup and bronchitis. She did not have a single occurrence of wheezing (or croup or bronchitis for that matter) for the entire year of 2010, which was of course after we changed our diets.
  • All four of us have made it through this winter (thus far) without getting any fevers or significant colds. Neither child has missed a single day this school year due to sickness. Our youngest had one 12-hour stomach bug after a plane flight, and this has luckily been the only virus we’ve dealt with so far this season (knock on wood)!
  • Overall I feel like I have more energy and need less sleep.
  • My husband and I have both lost a few pounds.
  • Just imagine what else has changed in our bodies that we don’t even know about yet … like reduced chance of certain diseases even including some cancers.
  • And in addition to these changes in our health, we’ve also all been lucky enough to experience a change in our palates (for the better) including less desire for the junk. My husband and I also seem to need to eat a lot less food in order to feel full … because real food is filling!

For more details on our health benefits check out “Day 47” post from the middle of our first 100-day pledge.

Now, I don’t think I need to list the reasons why one would want to save money while food shopping. So instead, here are some valuable lessons I learned that helped us stick to real food and keep it cheap …

  • Be organized and plan out meals for the week
  • Minimize waste (i.e. put uneaten food back instead of throwing it away)
  • Know and use what you have on hand (especially if it’s perishable)
  • Make substitutions in recipes to reduce how many things you have to buy
  • Maximize “cheap” foods like bananas and beans
  • Make sacrifices (i.e. water instead of milk)
  • Reduce your consumption of meat and desserts
  • Buy produce that’s in-season
  • Check your receipt after you get home to make sure your money was spent wisely (most grocery stores accept returns!)

After all of those warm and fuzzy benefits and budget tips, I am allowed to complain a little, right? Because as much as I love and believe in all of this real food stuff, I am so happy the budget pledge is over! And just for the record, we will still be on a food budget going forward, but it will provide me with a little more money and a lot more flexibility. I know you blog readers didn’t do it on purpose, but reporting out every last detail of my food purchases to all of you was a lot of pressure. Now that it is over I don’t have to worry about the world crashing down if I accidentally lose a receipt or, heaven forbid, buy the same boring items week after week. :)

So, aside from that pressure, this is what I disliked the most about being on such a strict food budget …

  • Having to meticulously record and worry about every penny spent, which is surprisingly hard to do sometimes
  • Not being able to stock up on certain items before we would completely run out
  • Not being able to make impulse purchases on basic items like a lemon or an onion “just in case” I needed it
  • Not being able to take advantage of sales by doubling up on great deals
  • Having to say “no” to my daughters when they begged me for innocent (and expensive) items like a pineapple or string cheese!
  • The fear of trying completely new recipes because I could not afford to waste food if it wasn’t a success
  • Having to restrict our milk consumption in order to continue to afford “the good milk” that all of us love so much
  • Rarely being able to satisfy my sweet tooth since “desserts” were one of the first things to go
  • And last, but not least … having to repeatedly put items back when I was checking out at the register, because I could never seem to predict exactly what I could afford

So for those reasons, I am so glad we are done with this pledge! But as painful as it was, I would be lying if I said I didn’t learn from it. Throwing myself into the fire like that was definitely the best way for me to figure out how to shop for real food and stick to a budget at the same time. And I certainly needed all of the help I could get because before this little project my spending was getting out of control. Stay tuned because even though this pledge is over there is more to come. In my next post I’ll share what we did with our last $15 over the weekend, and also the first items I plan to “splurge on” now that we have a little more money to spend. Woo hoo!!

Post Budget Pledge 1: Some Relief and Revelations

February 1, 2011

I feel a weight has been lifted off my shoulders now that our budget pledge is over! But what I didn’t expect was the guilt I would feel when I finally could (and did) spend a little extra money last week. And not only was it guilt about spending more money, but also about the possibility of us not finishing all the food I’d bought before it passed its prime. That was certainly one of the nice things about being on a tight budget. I could never afford to buy more than we could eat, and this past week brought back memories of how much spoiled food we’d end up throwing away in our pre-budget days.

Before I dive into the things I splurged on at the store, let me finish up our last budget week. As I previously mentioned (on day 97), we had $15 left and instead of buying more groceries with that money, we decided to put it towards a nice family brunch out at a new local restaurant. I am just thrilled each time I hear of a new restaurant opening up in Charlotte that serves local food! It is about time our city hopped on this bandwagon. And since each and every time we buy food we are essentially “voting with our dollars,” I want to do everything I can to support these restaurants. Although I will say … local doesn’t necessarily mean “whole grain” or “no sugar”, which are also two very important rules to us, but hey—I guess I can’t always have it all!

Eggs benedict with pasture-raised, house-crafted lamb sausage, warm chevre, romat tomatoes, and a poached egg over a toasted fresh-made baguette from Halcyon in North Carolina.

So we went downtown to eat at Halcyon, which is connected to Charlotte’s new Mint Museum of Art. I was thrilled they were offering a brunch menu because breakfast food is by far the easiest thing to order for my girls when we are out (since I almost never order off the kids menu). After much deliberation, my husband and I both decided on the “Benedictine Brunch” dish. We almost never get the same thing because we love to sample as much food as possible, but their version of eggs benedict with pasture-raised, house-crafted lamb sausage, warm chevre (a.k.a. goat cheese), Roma tomatoes, and a poached egg over a toasted fresh-made baguette just sounded to die for. And lucky for us, it turned out to be pretty darn awesome.

Two pieces of bacon, scrambled eggs with cheese, and a side of orange slices from Halcyon in North Carolina.

We both cleaned our plates, which is also rare because entrees are usually so big these days. But they turned out to be the perfect size and the perfect dish for us to order. Our girls had scrambled eggs, local bacon, and some fruit (which we requested instead of the standard white bread toast). All in all, we enjoyed a delicious meal in a lovely setting, and we hope to eat there again soon!

So after considering the cost of this meal and what was left in our “restaurant fund” we basically ended our 100-day budget pledge with $0 left. And that was totally fine with me because all I really cared about was not overspending (and I didn’t … yay)! So on day 101 there were quite a few things I couldn’t wait to buy, and not to worry because I had those purchases taken care of in no time :). Most of the items I “splurged on” were totally innocent foods that my daughters love, but that I just couldn’t afford to buy during the tight budget days …

Groceries from Earth Fare that include pineapple, string cheese, pecans, dates, Squeeze applesauce, peanut butter, olives, and brown rice crackers.
  • Pineapple
  • Pecans and dates (this was for me to make my beloved chocolate powerballs from the torte recipe)
  • String cheese
  • Squeeze applesauce
  • Little peanut butter packet that my preschooler thinks is fun to take to school with her apple or banana snack
  • Olives (this one was not for the kids either)
  • “Expensive” brown rice crackers

Here are some other things that weren’t pictured, but were quickly added to our list of “splurge” purchases …

  • Avocado
  • Fresh blueberries (I’ve actually warmed up to the idea of eating the frozen—and much cheaper—blueberries, so this will be a rare and very special purchase going forward)
  • Goat cheese
  • Super yummy mozzarella cheese balls that are floating in water (during our budget pledge this one definitely broke the record for the number of times it made it into my cart and then had to be given back at the register because I couldn’t afford it … it is very much a want not a need!)

After having a few fun days of just buying whatever my heart desired (that was my reward!), we are back to budgeting, and we’ve decided to move up to a food budget of $150/week and keep the same $20/week for eating out. And I have confidence that I can do this after everything I’ve learned from the budget pledge. It’s hard not to notice some of the good habits that have stuck with me so far …

  • Not wasting a bit of food – We were having dinner at a friend’s house when I saw they were about to throw away a ¼ cup or so of a white bean dip. My husband and I simultaneously yelled “No! We will take that home!” Sure they looked at us like we were a little crazy, but that wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened since we started all of this real food business. And boy did I enjoy every last bite of that dip on some Triscuits the very next day. :)
  • Menu planning for the week – As much time as this task can take, it really is a must if you don’t want to overspend. If I don’t plan ahead and attempt to overlap ingredients in the upcoming week’s recipes I could never survive on a budget of any kind.
  • Not buying something if I know I can get it for a lot less – I needed some unsweetened coconut when I was out shopping last week, and they were all out of the store brand that was on sale for only $2.00. Even though I was completely out of coconut at home (and use it regularly to make granola cereal) I could not bring myself to buy the name brand version for more than twice as much. So I just survived without it and stocked up on the cheap stuff the next time I was at the store!

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1,168 thoughts on “100 Days on a Budget Series”

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  1. With the aisles described, that was a smaller Trader Joe like the one I frequent. I have simar problems with produce and find some of the block cheese to mold quickly.

    TJ has the best price on organic gallon milk. I go about 8 weeks between visits. Stock up on pantry items like nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, rice drink, pasta, canned beans, and cooking wine. Their frozen veggies are good quality. Frozen wild caught fish/seafood can be found, which is a plus for my landlocked Midwest location.

  2. You must have a super small trader joes because we have all that stuff. Love mine. Many times it is my only stop for the week and I don’t walk down the frozen aisle either. But I also know what they don’t carry and try to get that stuff on my non tj weeks. It’s called stock piling.

  3. I shop at trader joes and get all of the items you couldn’t find other than have never looked for dried chick peas. Don’t know what trader joes you shop at but to deceive that all are like this is wrong. Did you ask the help? I love my trader joes.

  4. This looks like only dinner. What about packed lunches and breakfast? I am spending wayyy more than this but I include breakfast and dinner foods. Would love to see what they eat for those meals.

  5. So, we had a Halloween fairy visit our house!
    They could pick 5 pieces ,but had to leave the rest of the candy on the table. The next day in exchage for the candy they got a one of the bigger sized nerf guns. They loved it!! The next year while out trick or treating they asked if the holloween fairy would visit again. Done no more dealing with loads of candy again and they still enjoyed trick or treating!!

  6. Kauri Bendickson

    I love coming back to re-read these posts and get ideas for when our family’s budget is slim! I only just now realized you bought your grapes for $1.45 (so I’m presuming if you bought the whole pack they would be about $3?) Wow! Up here a dinky bag of grapes is about $12…Canadian (so what is that, maybe $10 US?). Food in general is crazy expensive here. I wonder if there are any frugal bloggers in BC…

  7. WOW 125/WEEK?!
    My budget is 150/MONTH for my family of 4 plus my grandma.. This is not a reality of a budget friendly meal plan for most families. I do use mostly whole foods and zero waste as well. Quite ridiculous.

  8. Trader Joe’s works to have healthy food, lots of organic, non-GMO items. When something isn’t available it’s probably because the quality is not up to their standards. I once asked a manager if the fish was from China. He told me they sell nothing from China. I’m glad to find organic/non GMO oats there. I make our granola. Who needs Round-Up laced oats that are used in most commercial cereals?!!

  9. FYI if you return food products to a store once you purchase them, legally they cannot restock the item. In NY the store has to throw it away. Other states may let stores donate to food pantry, etc. Lots of wasted food.

  10. You can buy organic lemon/lime juice at most stores. It’s 100% juice and it lasts much longer than having to buy lemons/limes and hope you can use them before they go bad. I don’t buy them anymore since I found this juice.

    1. If you would rather use fresh juice, you can buy it on sale, freeze the citrus whole or as I do, zest the fruit and juice them all into ice cube trays. Each cube is 1 tbs which makes it so easy to measure! I use the zest in all kinds of baked goods and sauces. Its terrific for a punch of flavor!
      To use the frozen fruit, just zest it while its frozen and then allow to thaw over night in the fridge, juice when thawed.

  11. Just a suggestion, if you are reposting an old post
    that has $ amounts, please update the amounts to today’s prices. I think everyone will be shocked to see how much the cost of groceries have gone up in 4 years.

  12. I am currently feeding my family of 10 on $95 a week to meet a pay-off-debts goal. My usual budget is $150, so I am definitely feeling the pinch. I cook everything from scratch, buy on sale and freeze for later (meats, butter, frozen veggies), and we go through 8-10 gallons of milk a week. Yikes! I also bottle a bunch of free food in the summer (this year I was given apricots, peaches, tomatoes, and green beans).

    What we don’t do–buy organic, eat much meat, go out to eat.

    1. I would also really like to know how you do this as well. We are living with in laws at the moment due to some financial crisis and there are 10 of us in the house. We are spending close to $1000 a month on food. I am the one that prepares the most meals so I would find this extremely interesting!

  13. I have been following your blog for several years & have learned so much. I would like to know if you had to do the 100 days on a budget now what would you do differently, i. e. what items would you purchase & what your meals would look like now?

  14. I have never heard of Earth Fare. We live in a small community. How ever I do go to Traders Joes and we have Grocery Outlet, which get a lot of Organic and non GMO products there. They always have organic coconut oil when I have gone there, it is a fad these days. Most of their products are cheaper then the regular stores. I highly recommend checking them out. We have a family of six and I have to find good products for cheaper prices if possible, things add up very quickly.

  15. I am a single mom and am raising a granddaughter. In our home we have Mom (me) an 18 year old girl, 16 year old boy and 2 year old girl. My son was recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and I know a whole food diet is so important for us all, but especially him. Both teens are in 2-3 sports a piece (well they both were, not sure about my son in the future). I have wanted to incorporate a mostly plant based, whole food diet for our family, but just cannot get it done with our limited budget. If I spend more that $50/week total I have heart palpitations because that means I won’t have enough in other areas.

  16. I don’t go to the Trader’s Joe’s very often since I have found similar problems, but they do have a few items that are cheaper than other places. (I shop for the best price instead of one stop shopping. I just do it when it’s on my way to some place else.) They do have some good deals on real food though, but so does Aldi. I just shop around.

  17. Our TJ’s is quite a lot bigger, and they carry organic tahini, shredded coconut and organic onions. Their organic garlic is in a bag with 2-3 heads, but is super inexpensive, so worth it. It’s my go-to store for most items – and then I go to Whole Foods or the farmer’s market for the rest.

  18. My problem is knowing how to use the real foods. I have zero recipes and ones I do find online seem to be very complicated and time consuming. I know I could do better with eating clean if I knew how to cook the foods. I know you have a cookbook, but that’s not in my budget, as of right now. Any suggestions on where to find clean, cheap, and easy recipes?

  19. There are those without resources that are needed for cooking. The tools and supplies needed for cooking/making food… Electric bill, gas bill, light, water, and resources needed for cooking are limited. It would be great to see the success of living off of $125 on NOTHING, but the food you buy and munching on them without cooking or even seasoning… Perhaps the possibility is endless. Were you able to season the food on your table with the resources “already had”? There are many things to consider and think about.. when it comes to food stamps. It’s not merely purchasing food at the grocery aisle and saying that you spent $125 on it for you goal of living a 100 days on a budget. I laud your awareness, conscious purchase of your needs. And perhaps this may have been more exciting if you had done it WITH NOTHING (i.e., cooking stove, electricity, seasonings, ect…) necessary for a nice warm meal. Just a 2 cents worth of thought.

    1. I found myself homeless for most of the year around the time the original post went up (2010), and (somehow, miraculously) managed to get food stamps for about a month of that time. At that time, our state offered a max of around 3$ per day for a single (regardless of housing situation).

      I started from zero, and had zero resources… including the resource ability to wash any produce (outside of using some shops bathroom sink) or safely save/store much of anything (especially anything perishable) for any extended period of time. My options to use the card were basically limited to Kroger and Publix, of which ours didn’t have any of those bulk silo/bin type food options. (Most all of our farmer’s market produce cost way more than the store. So, it was out.) Seasonings weren’t really an option (unless you wanted to use food $ on them or nick some from a gas station or something), and buying most any perishable in a family or bulk size (which was almost always the cheapest option) wasn’t really an option due to the save/store situation.
      I spent weeks trying to eat as healthy and whole as I could while I had the card, and it was reasonably possible for me where I live (partly due to having years of culinary experience and a decent amount of nutrition education), but the reality of it is that it was also just plain exhausting *having* to live that way. I mean… I didn’t have not one single warm ‘meal’ for that entire winter, and living like this actually ended up costing more (overall) in my case.

      Please don’t get me wrong… I get where you’re coming from and I do appreciate your enthusiasm (and I’m pretty sure you were probably looking for a better or more detailed in a different way type success story – sorry about that), but as someone who has lived this version of this scenario, and has known quite a few others that have gone through the same… the reality of having to live like this is not something we would’ve ever have described as ‘exciting’.
      This is definitely the kind of thing someone is going to want to have at least a place (like a home) to safely store/save their food for tomorrow and wash it. After having done both myself, I can pretty much guarantee that this is the better option.

  20. Hi,
    While I have had friends post some of your recipes on social media, I haven’t really checked out your blog until now. My husband and I are both disabled and receive social security benefits. We are in the process of renewing our food stamps, of which we received $179/month for the two of us. First, I will point out that we recognize SNAP benefits as supplementary financial assistance, but that doesn’t lessen the benefit of this assistance. We are both college students, and with my husband in his Masters, he has been trying desperately to find work in his field since before he graduated with his Bachelors this past Dec. One thing to keep in mind is that while some do certainly take advantage of the systems put in place to help those in need, there are those of us who truly need the help and are thankful for it. Moreover, not everyone receiving the help (including my husband and myself) plans to continue doing so for the remainder of our lives. There are those of us who are actually trying to better ourselves and be contributing members of society, even if society doesn’t recognize those of us with disabilities as such.
    Prior to reading this post, I was going to consider emailing you privately to ask for any tips to begin eating more “real food”. We don’t have a Trader Joes, ETC in our area, and Walmart has been the most helpful store for receiving sighted assistance in shopping. However, since you have chosen to make your misconceptions about SNAP public, I don’t believe you would truly understand a situation such as the one we (and others) face. I certainly won’t take the time to detail all of our financial woes, but I might suggest walking a few miles in someone else’s shoes before assuming that their situation would be better than your own. You chose to be on a budget, and while I certainly commend (and agree with) this decision, some of us truly cannot afford the organic items and can easily believe that a “real food” lifestyle, while physically beneficial, couldn’t really be financially possible. For some of us, a budget isn’t a choice, but a necessity, and “budgeting” advice is laughable when a budget means you pay the minimal living expenses, and thank the Lord you were able to make it for another month.

    1. Mandy, my family of 5 is on SNAP for the same exact reasons you’ve laid out here, and I have noticed that we need to be careful not to buy into the very same shameful assumptions about food benefits that we are trying to cure others of. I think that if you look again at Lisa’s post, she isn’t maligning people who receive SNAP at all, but rather patting herself on the back for managing to scrape by on a budget that, unbeknownst to her, is even lower than the state finds to be sufficient to provide to those of limited income. I will admit that she is ever-so-slightly offensive when she says “must be nice…” but that isn’t the same as assuming that people on SNAP are layabouts taking the state for a free ride. I think some of us who are temporarily on SNAP are rev’d up to defend our right to take this state assistance. I know my husband makes the argument about once a month (to me, alone) that he gave his 8 years to the military and needs the additional assistance if he’s going to be able to take advantage of the GI Bill, bla bla bla… No one is actually accusing him of being a leech, but the very act of asking for help makes him ashamed. It shouldn’t. The state is investing in us, and gets a great return on its investment. I’m sorry this subject is a sensitive one for you, but I hope that you can (almost a year later, albeit) take a second look at this situation and see that you’re not being judged. There is no reason to reject the possibility of eating whole and healthy foods on SNAP. I’ve personally never eaten so many fresh fruits and vegetables as we have on benefits. However, I don’t stick to an all-organic diet. (Sorry, Lisa, not the perfect defense, I know! That’s up to you!)

    2. I totally agree with you Mandy. The tone of this article was horrible. I myself have been in your shoes before and thank God things are better now. However, I have a child who has not one, but two disabilities with one being Crohns Disease. Therefore, I am always looking for ways to budget on foods because she cannot eat processed ones. With that being said, I have tried to get SNAP benefits for her but I make too much money (they say, I didn’t realize I was rolling in money) but the state has tighten its reigns due to so many people who misuse the benefits. The Blessing is that I have been able to become a small business owner while working a fulltime job (in Finance) and in school for Psychology. I have had some hard times in my life but I have never taken advantage of anything so to read an article like this is just in very poor taste and clearly Lisa Leake is not here to help everyone. I have seen many websites before that claim to help meal planning but I have never seen such a judgmental one.

      1. Hi Casie – This article is 8 years old, so I went back and read it again after seeing your comment. I can see how it could easily be misinterpreted from our true views, so have updated the intro paragraph with this statement:

        “I am by no means trying to diminish the difficult reality of truly living on a SNAP budget (we are practicing a self-imposed budget for only 100 days, after all), rather I am just patting myself on the back a bit for sticking to a tight budget.”

        I hope that clarifies things. – Jason

  21. Abbi Pawelkoski

    I love trader joe’s. I find many healthy budget friendly items there that are my staples…love the multi colored organic carrots which really brighten up a veggie platter….the marzano tomatoes are wonderful…recently found the whole wheat roasted vegetable ravioli in the refrigerated section which is perfect with some TJ Marinara with Basil…-only 200 kcal a serving and it is delicious! Another staple is there bottle unsweetened green tea and to top it off they play the best music which puts me in my happy place!

  22. Why all the cheese? Cheesesticks are processed and probably have a lot of non-cheese components. Seems like you could do better.

  23. For those on food stamps they really should require a class on nutrition, bargain shopping and basic cooking classes instead of drug testing. I was on them a long time ago for a short time while going to college with 2 kids on my own. There is no support whatsoever to help those in need to know how to spend wisely. Also they probably do not have a pantry at the ready also so setting that up with the basics should be helped with.

  24. That’s nice but as my guy is not nor will he ever be a vegetable guy we need meat at least once a day. Our “food stamps” for one in mi is maxed at $200 if they don’t have any income or job. By myself I was only getting $90 my SS is $757 my rent $550 my electric is about $100…not adding car insurance/plates/gas/expence of TP and laundry.

    Your budget is good but shopping once a week wasn’t an option for me when I was single.

  25. Asparagus and brie are two of my favorites, but i NEVER would have though to put them together!! I am totally trying this sometime soon! (Or maybe in the spring when asparagus is back in season.)

  26. Hi. I stumbled across this blog today and I’m really enjoying reading about how you are feeding your family healthy food on a small budget. I’m confused on your refusal to buy in bulk though. Onions stay good for awhile and buying a bag that you will use throughout the month is much cheaper than buying 1 single onion at a time. The initial price is a little more but it ends up cheaper. Hopefully this is addressed later on in your challenge!

  27. So glad to see you were taken to task on your elitist misunderstanding of how SNAP benefits work and how much families can receive! Disgraceful: “Must be nice…an extra 20 bucks or more a week would feel like a lot of money right now!”

  28. What is Canola OIl made from and why is it considered a “healthy” oil? Why not use Avacado OIl, or EVOO for your cooking?

  29. Have decided to try this. I have a teenage son who has adhd. Medication is not working for him. Dtr. suggested changing his diet. We have 3 family members and after bills only have $300. Good option our school district offers whole wheat bread options salads wraps etc. So after talking w my son he is confident he can eat school lunch and breakfast. It also helps i work in the kitchen of one of the hs. I know what is in everything. It is also a plus that we can eat for free breakfast and lunch. I feel fairly positive that we can do this on our $300 budget.

  30. no offense but use some of your frozen berries or fruits to make jam… home made jams takes less than a few hrs, but is doable if you have fruit/sugar/pectin; no reason to buy something that is better home made

  31. I know this is an older post but I’m wondering how you locate coupons for real foods? Do you follow brands or a website? I always find that challenging.

    1. Just to jump in and comment on this — I don’t have much luck finding paper coupons for real foods, but I do use several of the couponing apps such as Ibotta, Savingstar etc. and they frequently have offers on fresh produce, eggs, and milk. Savingstar has at least one produce 20% back every week.

  32. It really must depend on where you live for the product availability, My TJ’s definitely has more of a selection. Granted, I’m in NY and they can’t sell wine in the store, so they have more shelf space for other things. But, I always buy my shredded coconut and coconut meat from there, and have no problem with the produce. I’ve never bought any moldy produce or anything that goes bad in a few days. In fact, I normally have to leave the bananas and avocados out for days to let them ripen enough to be edible! I agree that I can’t get my dried beans there, but to do one stop shopping I will buy cans and deal with it.

  33. i agree with and enjoyed your article and insight very much. I want to add though, if you skip the Lara bars you can make your own protein bars and pick up every ingredient from TJ. I use their raw almond butter, nuts, oats, protein powder, coconut milk and flakes, honey, chia, hemp seeds.

  34. I totally agree that TJ’s produce isn’t great. They are cheaper, but you’re paying for what you get. So far I’ve tried their organic sweet potatoes, green peppers, eggplants and none of these were very good quality. They tasted bad as compared to the produce I get from our local co-op which I shop most of the time.
    I also thought the same with their sunflower seeds and I ended up returning them.
    Although, I like their cauliflower and that is one thing I buy at TJ.