Minding The Details: Cleaning A Moldy Plastic Cup

MInding Details

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Kids will be kids, and ours are no exception.  We bought a 6 pack of reusable plastic Rubbermaid juice boxes on Amazon to avoid the waste and cost of buying juice boxes for school and weekend trips. They are very sturdy and have held up well to frequent washing.

This weekend, we found one beneath the couch. It had held orange juice, so a tiny bit of the sticky sweet juice had coated the inside.

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Who knows how long it had been lingering in there, but it had grown some mold on the inside. Each container was about $2.77, and we didn’t want to throw it out.

We first tried hot soapy water, followed by the dishwasher, but the mold was still there.

I scoured the internet and found this article for rice and baking soda. I also asked in the Non Consumer Advocate Facebook page.  The folks there suggested bleach, and one suggested vinegar. We were feeling a little tetchy about bleaching something the kids would drink from, so we decided to try the rice.

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We added rice and baking soda to the juice box, and then filled with hot water and a bit of dish soap.

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My trusty assistant was generous enough to shake the bottle for me. It took all of 2 minutes. She was disappointed when I would not let her drink the contents. The rice and baking soda served as a scouring agent, and scoured the mold right off.

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I then filled with 50/50 vinegar and water to disinfect.

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I ran it through the dishwasher and- voila!- it was clean and good as new.

It took me about 20 minutes of research and 5 minutes hands-on time, but we kept $2.77 in our pockets.

Minding The Details: A Packed Lunch

 MInding Details

 Until I dropped to part-time in May, my kids were in day care full time. Until this summer, when we started doing oral challenges at the allergist’s office, all three had multiple food allergies. Because of that, I had always packed my kids’ lunches and snacks. We are now down to 3 of what used to be 6 food allergies, but I still pack lunches. Why bother?

My son is now in public school, and they serve hot meals. Lunch is $2.45 and includes only milk, which he does not drink. If he bought lunch 5 days a week, it would be $12.25 per week and about $49 per month.

I wondered if it was worth it to shave 10 minutes off my morning and opt for a school lunch instead of a packed lunch. We own Planetbox lunch boxes and reusable Rubbermaid juice boxes, as well as bamboo utensils and cloth napkins.

My detailed breakdown:

I send 8 oz of full-strength apple juice in our own juice box. 64 oz of apple juice from Aldi costs $1.49. 8 oz of apple juice in our container costs $0.19.

My kids don’t really eat sandwiches. I send 4 slices of ham by itself, plus half a dozen fresh spinach leaves. I get a pound of sliced ham for $4.25 with coupon (Land O Frost). There are 9 servings in that pound, so each serving is $0.47 with about $0.05 worth of spinach.

This week, I sent a quarter of a pint of raspberries each day. Pints were $1.25, so that was $0.31. I also sent some grapes, which were $4 for the bag. I sent about $0.25 worth of grapes.

He got a bag of Aldi fruit snacks. We get 32 pouches for $3.49, or $0.11 per snack.  Sometimes I send homemade oatmeal raisin cookies which cost about $0.06 each.

This makes his lunch about $1.44 per day, or a savings of $1.01 per day.

Now, I know that does not sound like much, but if you multiply this by the 182 school days per year, that is $183.82 per year per child. When all three of my kids are in school, that would keep  an extra $551.46 in our pockets every year.

What is an extra $551 to you? An extra mortgage payment? Two extra car payments? Halfway to a $1000 emergency fund?

Take care of the details, and the details may take care of you.

Minding The Details: Our Daily Bread

MInding Details

I have nothing against store-bought bread. I have been baking my own for so long, however, that my family and I are used to the taste of the real deal. My kids call store-bought bread “square bread”, and think it’s a little strange.

I started out baking my own bread, because all of my children were living with a dairy allergy. Nearly every brand of bread at the store has some kind of milk in it. The ones that didn’t, I did not consider healthy enough to feed my family, or were just plain expensive. My kids have now all outgrown the allergy (woot!), but I continue to bake our bread.

Our local specialty store has a wonderful bakery,and makes all kinds of artisan breads. A loaf of 10 grain bread, made only with grains, yeast, honey, salt, and water, ran us $5 per loaf. We typically would go through 2 loaves a week. It seemed insane for bread made with so few ingredients to take up 10% of my weekly grocery budget. Surely it was not that hard to make it?

We received a bread-maker for a wedding gift, but it bakes a weird, squat little loaf, and the paddle at the bottom gets stuck in the loaf, making the last few slices unusable for sandwiches. It always overcooks the bread, making the crust too hard. We only really use it on the dough setting, for pizza and focaccia doughs.

At one point, I stumbled upon the Prudent Homemaker‘s blog, and saw her bulk grain storage system, and her homemade french bread, that only costs her 25 cents per loaf.  I was able to make her french bread recipe, it was a hit with my family, and I have been baking my own ever since.

After a lot of practice, I wouldn’t call myself a bread making expert, but I am more than a novice. It’s really not as difficult as it looks, and I heartily recommend giving it a try. I now make a version of this Sandwich Bread most often, and I spend between $0.25-0.75 per loaf, depending on the recipe and price of milk.

I thought I would share my process to help demystify it a bit.

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Bread at its most basic is made from flour, yeast, salt, and water. The French Bread I linked above is made from those ingredients.

I myself now prefer to make my bread with milk. It really makes the dough easier to knead (important for folks like me who have arthritis), and the crumb tends to be softer.

I use bread flour (higher gluten content, so it rises better), honey (to feed the yeast), salt, olive oil (I’m Sicilian, so I replace the melted butter in the recipe with olive oil), yeast (bought in bulk from Sam’s), and milk.

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I throw my salt and all but 1/2 a cup of my flour in my giant stainless steel bowl, and then proof my yeast.

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This basically means I dump the yeast, honey, and oil into a cup with the warmed water, give it a quick whirl, and then let it sit there until the yeast looks bubbly and foamy. This tells me my yeast are live, and my bread probably won’t fail to rise. Hint: Do not throw the salt in there too or you will have dead yeast.

Once that happens, I give everything a mix in the bowl with a wooden spoon. It will be pretty sticky still, but shouldn’t be wet.

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I then toss everything onto my counter, where I have dumped the last half cup of my flour. I start kneading the dough on the flour, and it will change from a disheveled pile to a cohesive ball.

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You should be easily able to stretch and fold this ball. If it’s sticky, add a wee bit of flour, but not too much. Too much flour will make a stiff dough, and a stiff dough will have a hard time rising. The rise comes from the air bubbles made by the yeast, so imagine those air bubbles trying to lift something heavy and awkward. Not going to happen!

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Eventually (5ish minutes for me), I am done kneading, and I stretch the dough into a ball and put back in the bowl. Cover with a damp (but not soaking wet!) cloth, and set aside to rise. You don’t want to get it cold, so put it away from drafts. I put mine in my unheated oven and set the timer for 40 minutes. Feel free to run around working on other things- no need to watch it!

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When your timer goes off, it’s time for your second rise. I shape mine into a loaf, stretch the sides down and pinch them together at the bottom. This will help stretch the gluten, and therefore help the rise. I put my loaf pan into the microwave to let it stay away from drafts. Technically, you should cover it, but I never really do. After about 50 minutes, I peek and see if it’s puffed up beyond the edge of the pan. If it has (and it usually has), I bake it in the oven with a pan of water on the lower rack. That will help steam your loaf.

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Once out of the oven, I cool in the pan until it is touchable, and then plop it out on a towel upside down, to let the moisture dissipate from the bottom. When it’s cool enough to slice, I slice on a plate, so I can scrape the breadcrumbs into my bread crumb freezer bag (don’t waste anything!). Wrap it in plastic and use within a couple days, because homemade bread has no preservatives, and will get stale and mold a lot quicker than store bought bread.

You can always keep a loaf in the freezer and thaw later, or even slice and thaw a couple slices at a time. Frozen bread will taste fresh when thawed.

If your kids are like mine, and refuse to eat end pieces, I grind in the Ninja to make breadcrumbs, and add them to my bread crumb bag in the freezer.

Minding The Details: How I Keep My Grocery Budget So Low

Feed 5 for $100week

Keeping our grocery budget low is one strategy we use to save money.

According to the USDA, on the “Thrifty” plan, or the cheapest recommended amount to spend on food for each family member, our family would be spending $161.90 per week, or $647.60 per month.

On the “Liberal” plan, we would be spending $316.90 per week, or about $1267.60.

We easily spend much less than the “Thrifty” plan every week, without being deprived. In fact, we struggle with food waste just like anyone else, and our pantry and fridge are packed to the gills.

In the past 4 weeks, we have in fact spent $389 on food, or just over what we would spend in one week using the “Liberal” plan.

I accomplish this without too much difficulty. When I was still working full time, and we had less time, we spent about $500 per month. This was still less than the Thrifty plan, however.

How do I do it?

  1. I plan a menu and a shopping list every week. I make note of what needs to be used up in the fridge and pantry, and anticipate any evening activities that might require a quick meal. I shop every Saturday, so I start my list-making on Wednesday.
  2. I check the sale items at several stores, usually Aldi, Kroger, and local specialty stores Fresh Thyme, Whole Foods, and Dorothy Lane. I work my menu around these sales.
  3. I do the majority of my shopping for staples at Aldi, and make a quick trip to Kroger or another store for loss-leader items, or items I can’t find at Aldi. If it’s summer, I might hit the farmer’s market as well.
  4. I spend about 2 to 2 1/2 hours every Saturday hitting a few stores. I stick to my list, and get in and out.
  5. I bring cash. I have an envelope system for our family shopping needs, and I put $400-500 cash in my grocery envelope at the beginning of the month, depending on whether the month has 4 or 5 weeks. I leave the credit card at home, unless I also need to get gas.
  6. I use coupons, but only sparingly. Because our family has multiple food allergies, most processed foods are off limits. We prefer to eat whole, fresh foods anyway.
  7. We eat vegetarian or vegan most of the time. I might put meat on the menu 1 or 2 days per week. Most of the time we eat eggs, cheese, lentils, and beans. I make beans from dried the majority of time, as it is cheaper. Yes, my entire family loves lentils!
  8. I make most of our food from scratch. Depending on the recipe, I can bake a loaf of bread for $0.25-0.75.
  9. I buy some foods in bulk. I buy our most frequently used staples at Sam’s, when I have calculated the price per ounce is cheaper than elsewhere, and store them in bulk food containers with gamma lids. I buy all purpose flour, bread flour, sugar, yeast, white rice, oil, vinegar, and brown sugar this way.
  10. I try new recipes regularly to build up our repertoire of frugal menu items. I won’t make something we don’t like just because it’s cheaper, but we have found many recipes we like that are both frugal and delicious. These simple lentils and onions, that we eat over bulk rice, are delicious and now part of our regular weekly menu. They also only cost about$1.50 to feed my entire family! That’s about 30 cents per person!
  11. I don’t buy a lot of snack foods, such as potato chips, pretzels, or hot snacks like Bagel Bites or Hot Pockets. I usually have crackers from Aldi, but my kids tend to snack on fruit, veggies, or a homemade baked good.
  12. I don’t buy single-use items, like juice boxes or bags of chips, unless we are having a birthday party. I bought reusable juice boxes from Amazon and fill them with water or half water/half apple juice from Aldi. Lunch snacks go in reusable bags or containers.
  13. For each mealtime, I do try and give preference to the lower priced breakfast and lunch foods. For example, instead of always eating cereal, frozen waffles, or Pop Tarts, and just focusing on the cheapest brand I can find, we might eat oatmeal, a slice of toast made with homemade bread, or a smoothie. A slice of homemade bread and a small pat of butter might only cost 10 cents! We do still like cereal, but we might save it for just a couple days per week.
  14. I build in at least 1-2 “hunt and peck” nights to the weekly menu. This helps reduce food waste and get rid of leftovers.
  15. While we do drink milk, juice, and soy milk, we don’t ever buy soda and we don’t drink much alcohol. In fact, I don’t drink alcohol period, and my husband only has the occasional beer. My personal drink luxury is hot tea with half and half, or cold brewed mason jar iced tea.

Why bother to work at keeping food costs so low?

Let’s say we spent $647/month on the Thrifty plan, as expected. By keeping a budget of $400/month, this would allow us to save almost $3000/year.

If we had been in the habit of spending the $1267 of the Liberal plan, driving down our food costs to $400/month would allow us to save $10, 400/year!