Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rainy Day Fun

Rainy days bring a bigger challenge to keep active kids entertained. Overcast skies always bring out a sense of restlessness in my crew.  With four kids in a five room house (3 bedrooms, 1 great room, 1 kitchen), we can get on each others nerves a bit if we're cooped up inside too long.  It's easy to sit and watch TV or play video games, but since we're a one TV household and our programming is limited to an antenna and Netflix live streaming (only $8/month) we are limited there too, however we are commercial free.  Commercial free is a great thing with kids.  They aren't influenced by advertising and can decide for themselves what they think is cool, instead of being seduced by the latest advertising gimmick.  They are often less materialistic as a result.  Not always, but often.  Now that I've strayed completely off topic and I choose not to edit the previous off topic bit, back to rainy days.  I love them, but my kids do not like storms of any kind.  Rain and bugs send them into a complete tizzy. 

  Turn on a single lamp or light a candle in a darkened room and create shadow puppets.  click here for shadow puppet directions   

Another indoor option is Kid's Bowl Free - yes, they really do!  click here for details We love this program - it's mainly through the summer though.  Kids bowl free, our bowling alley charges for shoe rental or the kids can bowl in their socks.  They have a plan to add parents on too and it's very reasonable.  One of our local bowling alleys gives the kids a coupon for a free game for every A or B on their report card.  

Check with your local YMCA and if you aren't a member see if they offer a free trial membership.  Wait until there's plenty of rain on the forecast and head in for a fun place to stay dry. 

Have an indoor picnic.  Spread out a blanket and fix sandwiches and finger foods.  

Build a fort with a card table and some sheets or blankets.  Sit in the fort with them and read books together.  

Bake and decorate cookies.   

Host a Twister party.  If you seen rain on the forecast throw an impromptu Twister party.  If you don't have the game on hand, make your own using a white sheet.  Write the colors and which hand/foot on slips of paper and draw them out of a jar, putting them back each time.  Serve polka dot foods such as pepperoni pizza, M&M cookies, round crackers with ring bologna or smoked sausage, etc.  Add frozen berries to lemonade for a polka dot drink.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

preserving food and memories

     Lately I have been bartering with my farmer's market neighbors for produce to can and feed my family over the winter months or make more jams and jellies to sell and barter with the next time.  I'm grateful for my friends who share the bounty on their fruit trees with us, we've canned peach slices, apple sauce, grape juice and jelly as well as cherry, peach and apple pie fillings.  We picked fruit together as a family and gone home to wash and prepare it.  My kids won't eat anything but homemade grape jelly now that they've picked grapes and seen them become grape juice and then jelly over a couple of days.  They appreciate all the work that goes into growing and preserving our own food and they've learned a skill that will help us survive not only the current economy, but possibly future disasters.  When I open the cupboard that holds those glass jars full of fruits, vegetables, jams and jellies, I am reminded of my grandmothers and late evenings spent helping my mother.  The canning supplies and jars I have were passed down from these women along with the skills to use them and the pride of knowing we could feed our family even when the money was tight.  
     Every time I can food, I think of all the women before me who canned food and how the process of preserving food has evolved over time.  About 15 years ago, I purchased twenty-four dozen canning jars from a woman my cousin knew.  She lived on a small farm and had raised gardens and an orchard and relied on it to feed her family.  Her jars had been handed down to her, purchased new and even found at second hand shops.  I wonder how many families have seen these jars.  For women who can and preserve food as a means to feed their families, jars are reused over and over.  Purchasing new jars every time is frivolous and wasteful.  The bands are reused until the rust takes them over and only new seals are purchased each time.  It's a tradition, much like decorating the family Christmas tree.  The equipment is carefully stored in one place, clean and ready for it's next use.  
     My mother and grandmother's canned to save money.  I can to save money, but also because I know exactly what is going into the jars and eventually into my children's tummies.  I also like knowing that instead of a metal can with a sharp edged lid and paper wrapper going into my recycling bin, only a lid with a not-so-sharp edge is going into my recycle bin.  The jars and threaded bands are reused and this has to be healthy for our environment.  While recycling is noble, reusing and reducing is much better for our environment.  It requires more resources to recycle than to reuse or reduce.  
     Whether you can, freeze or dry food to store for later, you can benefit your budget and the environment.  Make it a family affair, what a great way to spend quality time with each other.  Quality time has be redefined in our society to mean spending money and doing things that used to be for special occasions or once in a lifetime.  Quality time has more quality if you spend it teaching your children a skill or lesson, rather than paying to be entertained.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Being Broke Isn't Really a Joy

     The irony in the title of my blog is that being broke really isn't joyful in and of itself.  I've found through my faith in God, I can be joyful in any situation.  I'm not saying I'm deliriously ecstatic about being broke, but I can still find joy in life and with my family.  
     I get incredibly stressed some days, especially when a friend calls and one of my children overhear me turning down an invitation to go see the newest Disney movie, or head off to a theme park offering half price admission.  Four kids at the 10am Saturday morning show means, $30 in admission and $15 for a popcorn and 2 drinks to share among the six of us.  Wow.  That's $45 for less than 2 hours of entertainment.  I can buy 2 movies on blu-ray and a box of microwave popcorn and 2 2 liters of soda for that price and we can watch the purchased movies as many times as we want.  I explained this to my teary eyed 10 year-old last year and he (FINALLY!) got it.  It's not that I don't want to to take my kids to a movie, but it's not the best way to spend our money when our budget is so tight.  
     I am an older mom and was raised in the era when the economy was thriving.  There was always extra money.  I had a part time job, not to pay for college, but to buy the things that my mom said I had to buy with my own money because she was NOT spending her money on that crap.  I worked in college to pay for pizza nights and shopping sprees and sorority dues and because you're supposed to get a summer job in while you're in college.  What else do you do with your time?  Now college kids work so they can graduate with less debt or no debt and pray they can get a job when they graduate.  I had a great job, making good money and worked hard to be debt free.  You never know when life's going to throw you a curve ball.  Apparently, we got a pitcher that can only throw curve balls.  It's forced my husband and I to rethink everything in our life.  
     I was raised by a scoutmaster.  The "Be Prepared" motto spilled into our every day life.  My husband was raised in a fly by the seat of your pants family.  His parents farmed, so everything was unexpected and unpredictable, from the weather to the market price on grain.  His mom is a worry-wort type.  I inherited my mom's roll with it attitude along with my dad's emergency preparedness skills.  My husband got his mom's worry-wort trait and his dad's duck tape will take care of that skill.  So when something breaks he worries about whether the duck tape will hold and I'm relaxed and prepared with a back up plan.  It's been interesting to say the least.  And I have learned to not to say "I told you so", but I can't keep the expression off my face and he knows when I'm thinking it.  
     My computer has been my social connection to many of my friends.  I live vicariously through them.  I'm sometimes wistful, because I can't go meet them for a mani/pedi or have lunch with them at a posh restaurant and spend the afternoon shopping, but I have memories of times when I could do those things (and did) and I know someday I'll be able to do those things again.  I'll treasure them more and be less frequent about it, but nonetheless, I know the day will come when my youngest will start school and I'll go back to work full time, student loans and the 401K loan will be paid off.  When that day comes, we'll rebuild our savings and be able to tithe 10% and help those in need as others have helped us.  
     Meanwhile, I'm rediscovering the joy in the little things.  Nature walks with the kids, the bug in the jar that just won't die, stars and constellations in the sky, the beautiful colors of flowers, jumping contests and using our imaginations to create games, songs, stories and memories that I hope will last a lifetime.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Easy Chicken Parmesan

This is a favorite at our house and there are never leftovers, even when I make extra.  The no leftover thing bums my hubby out so I try to set a portion aside for his lunch the next day whenever I can.  

This recipe is super easy, and you can make it with low fat cheese if you need to.  You need 2-3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  Lately, I can't make chicken without my favorite meat pounding tool.  I usually buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts when they are on sale which usually means large pieces of meat that are quite thick, requiring longer cooking time.  SOLUTION:  This gadget from Pampered Chef is now one of my favorites.  (link to see said gadget)  I use the flat side and gently pound those pieces flat - the flattening process also makes them larger and more tender.  Once they've been flattened, I cut each ginormous chicken breast in to 3 smaller pieces.  You don't have to buy this particular one, find one you like that you can afford.  This was only $25 when I bought it and I cringed at the price, but it was totally worth it, in the amount I've saved by using much less chicken this way.  Digression in italics out of the way, pound out chicken breasts as described above, cut each into smaller portions.  A good sized portion of chicken is about the size of the palm of your hand, according to the most dietitians.  

Now at this point, I preheat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet and coat each piece of chicken with flour.  I use a gluten free all purpose flour or rice flour since I cook gluten free and we've found that it gets crispy and has a better texture, but regular flour works fine too.  Place chicken in skillet and cook on each side until flour is a light golden brown.  If you want these low fat/low carb, skip the flour and grill or broil your chicken.  
cooked chicken breast, add marina sauce, top with mozzerella

Grease a large baking dish and place cooked chicken in a single layer.  Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of your favorite spaghetti sauce or marinara sauce over each piece of chicken.  Top each with 1-2 tablespoons of finely shredded cheese. I use mozzarella, but it works with just about any kind.  Use your favorite, I promise not to judge.  Just make sure you cover and refrigerate any left over sauce.  I had a momentary lapse and put it back in my pantry once.  Oops.  I'm just glad it was a clear jar and I didn't have to open it to realize what had happened.  I threw it straight in the trash and skipped washing the jar for recycling/reuse.  

Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, until cheese is melted and bubbly.  The chicken will be so tender you can cut it with your fork.  See, I told you it was easy!  

I used serve it with pasta and poured the rest of the jar of spaghetti sauce over the pasta, add a leafy green salad and garlic bread.  My gluten free version is now, roasted potatoes and a green vegetable, usually broccoli or a salad. 

Update:  If you want an even quicker version of this, use prebreaded southern style chicken breasts instead of flouring and frying your own.  They aren't quite as healthy and they are a little more expensive but it eliminates a cooking step, saves time and some clean up.  You can also use slices of mozzarella, instead of shredded.  


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Finding Free and Inexpensive Outings

     Being a broke mom has forced me to search for different ways to entertain my kids.  It's very hard to keep hyper kids entertained.  They lose focus quickly and boredom leads to bad behavior, so it's important to keep a hat full of tricks to stave off the boredom. Of course there are obvious things like going to the park.  But even that becomes as mundane as the backyard swingset if you over do it.  (I really wanted some cute pics to go with all of the activities, but figured the info was just as valuable without them.  I'll find some pics/clipart and make it fancy later.)  
     Check the online calendar of events in your local newspaper.  You can often find things that are family friendly and free there.  Check with local entertainment venues to see if they offer any daily specials.  One movie theater in my town had free showings of kids movies one morning each week in the summer - they were usually ones that had been out for quite a while, but it was fun for the kids to see them on the big screen, plus if you have little ones that act up and you need to leave, you don't feel cheated out of the admission price.

     Our local symphony offers a two free concerts each summer.  Both are in a picnic friendly environment and we pack sandwiches or finger foods and head out with a blanket.  If you have young kids, try to sit near the edge or back, you may not have the best view, but you'll be so busy watching your kids, it won't matter anyway and you'll still be able to hear.  Kids will constantly want to get up to walk to the restroom or explore something else that catches their eye and you don't want to disturb the people around you.  The best thing about the second one last year was that if you brought a bag of non-perishable food to donate for a local food bank, you got a voucher for free concert tickets for a family of four at one of their indoor concert hall shows.  I had used coupons in conjunction with sale items and for under $5 we had a plastic grocery bag full of items to donate.  (We attended the Christmas concert, dressed in our Sunday best and got a free family photo taken in front of a BEAUTIFUL Christmas tree in the lobby.  We just had to go to their website to download it and print it off. Talk about getting a bonus!)

     Check with your local university.  If they have a music or theater department, they usually offer free events a few times a year.  Our local university also offers a free family swim night one night a week in one of the indoor campus pools.  Occasionally, they have free admission to their rock climbing wall, planetarium viewings, and other events.  

     We recently found out a local civic theater is often in need of ushers.  You don't get paid, but you get to enjoy the play or musical free of charge.  This is usually for children and adults 12 and over, but I'm considering making a date night out of it.  

     Research state parks in your area.  Our state offers a family membership for $35/year that allows admission into all state parks.  We found one near us that has a nice beach that's open seasonally, and surprisingly isn't crowded.  They usually have nice picnicking areas complete with hibachi's and playgrounds.  The walking trails are a nice way to get exercise and fishing or boat rentals provide additional entertainment.  Many state parks offer youth learning center and family friendly activities for no additional charge.  If you have a way to haul your bicycles, there are usually nice bike paths.  

    Investigate your local library.  Ours offers story time several times a week, free computer classes, a monthly Lego building contest, weekly video game hour, and the occasional special event.  My girls had a blast at a Fancy Nancy Soiree, dressing up and walking the red carpet with games, crafts, refreshments, door prizes and even treat bags as we left. The library used the event to promote a new Fancy Nancy book.

     In the summer, many churches offer a Vacation Bible School program.  I have a friend who tries to send her kids to one every week she can find one offered. The kids enjoy the Bible stories, games, and crafts and it gave her a couple of free hours each day to get things done.  These are often free or a small fee per family and you get a free CD of songs they learned.  My kids always go to the one at our church and I volunteer.      

     Give blood.  Yes, that's right, donate blood.  I read about an LA firefighter who was badly burned and injured in an explosion and by the time he was released from the hospital needed 84 units of blood.  You could help save a life and our local blood bank doesn't pay you, but they offer free movie passes, concert tickets, an all kinds of other fun stuff.  My husband went last month when they gave away free movie passes and I'm going today for the same deal.  They only give you two and we can use them for a date night or wait until we have six and take the whole family.  It's also a great lesson for your kids in giving and I've heard that giving blood regularly has some health benefits.  Make sure you hydrate well 2-3 days before going.  You even get a free snack afterward.  Last year we each got a free ticket to a concert by going on a day sponsored by an area radio station.  They also included a coupon for a free sandwich at a restaurant near the amphitheater.  We had a great date night.  

    Minor league sporting events are often inexpensive and most baseball stadiums have family nights and other specials that offer discounted admission certain days or a free concession item.  We found 2 stadiums in opposite directions from our home that have dollar night where all or selected concession items are $1 each.  

     Many museums have free admission days throughout the year.  Keep in mind these are often their busiest days of the year.  Pack a lunch to save money as most restaurants at zoos and museums are quite pricey.  

     City water parks are becoming more and more popular.  Surprisingly, they're starting to show up in smaller towns too.  One very small town of about 6,000 not far from us has a splash pad in their park.  A concrete pad with various sprinklers and fountains painted in primary bright colors, it's free and a fun way for the kids to cool off in the summer.  A couple of other towns within a reasonable drive have actual water parks with reasonable admission rates around $5/person.  

     Volunteer with your kids.  There are many places to volunteer as a family.  Many food banks need help stocking and while most people volunteer around the Christmas holidays, they need help year round.  Homeless shelters need volunteers to serve meals.  Even small children can wipe down tables and offer a smile to someone down on their luck.  Even better, bake and decorate cookies and take to pass out, just make sure you okay it with the shelter first.  Some have strict rules about any food served.  Visit a nursing home or senior center armed with some board games, card games and compassion.  Many of these people only see their families a few times a year.
     Visit an orchard or u-pick farm.  Plan in advance and have everything on hand so you can come home and can or freeze your pickings.  Blueberries, apples, strawberries are all popular u-pick goods and you can make jams, jellies and apple butter or pie filling as a family.  (My post for making your own jams coming soon.)  Store up for the winter or make enough to give as gifts.  Every year our extended family looks forward to getting a jar or two of homemade goodness for Christmas.  

     Team up with some other parents on your street and organize a neighborhood block party.  Have the kids decorate their bikes and parade down the streets.  Get with your city administration before blocking off a street completely though.  You may need a permit, but if they find out you only want to block off one block for a couple of hours, they may okay it without requiring any fees or permits.  Otherwise meet at a neighborhood park or a vacant lot and have some old-fashioned games like potato sack races and tug-of-war.  For a few dollars you can buy mini party bubbles - they're around $5 for a box of 24 and tie cute messages around them as favors.  Have someone come up with simple paper crafts and ask parents to donate inexpensive treats such as freeze pops, juice boxes, and other sun tolerant snacks.  

          Camp in your own backyard.  Pitch a tent (I just found out the local university's outdoor center rents them out) and sleep in your backyard.  Roast marshmallows, use a candle if there's a burn ban, and tell ghost stories if your kids are older.  Print an astrology chart off the internet and find constellations.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Family Movie Nights

My kids LOVE family movie night.  I'm not sure why it's such a big deal.  We watch movies a few times a week, but for some reason Family Movie Night is so much more special.  

In our house this event takes place after the dinner dishes are cleared away, usually on a Friday or Saturday night.  We put down a spill-proofing blanket on the floor in front of the TV and everyone is in their pajamas, ready for bed.  We've had a few incidents of kids falling asleep during the movie, so we instated the pajamas rule.  Sometimes we just let them sleep where they landed all night, depending on where they landed.  

We also pop popcorn. What's a movie without popcorn, right?  I purchased the striped plastic popcorn containers a few years ago from the dollar spot at Target - they have them several times a year.  My kids think these are awesome.  We pull them out for movie night and everyone has to sit on the blanket to have popcorn. I made one using rip-stop nylon (you could also use oil-cloth) and polar fleece - they nylon goes on the bottom and the top is soft and comfy, also great for picnics. This way I can just fold the edges and carry it outside to shake it out.  Once in a while I pick up a box of movie candy at the store - still trying to figure out how they can sell it for $1/box and the movie theaters must sell it for $3+/box.  They're all trying to make a profit, but that just crosses the line to greedy.  We also buy a 2 liter of soda to share, because we normally don't keep sodas on hand.  I have a stash of kids cups with lids saved from eating out at restaurants and I just use regular straws.  We use these cups all the time.  I don't buy plastic cups for my kids anymore.  Once we're set up with treats, we dim the lights and start the movie.

Tips for memorable movie nights:
  • Establish rules for talking, pausing for restroom breaks, etc.  If you have young kids consider an intermission halfway through the movie.  
  • Plan for snacks ahead of time, snacks that are small pieces they can eat with their hands are best since they'll be eating in the dark, some suggestions to be like a movie theater:  
    • Popcorn 
    • fun size M&M's, Skittles and Reese's Pieces
    • boxes of movie candy
    • gummy fruit snacks
    • muddy buddies
    • juice boxes
    • mini cans of soda with straws
    • sports bottles
    • This would also be a good time to try some of the popcorn recipes you've pinned.  
  • Before you start the movie, make sure everyone is comfy and ready to go with pillows or blankies.  
  • Dim the lights.  It's not like a movie theater with the lights on.  
Our favorite family movies:
  • Nim's Island  - adventure, comedy and just enough thrill to keep them interested, without being scary
  • We Bought a Zoo  - it did take a little while for my younger kids (ages 3 &5) to get interested, because the zoo part isn't right at the beginning and they kept waiting to see the animals, now they love it.
  • Kit Kittredge: An American Girl  - my husband groaned when he saw the title, but when we finished watching it the first time, they started it over immediately.  Great period piece with an ensemble cast and still has a modern feel.  Also has some good moral lessons. 
  • Dolphin Tale  - what's not to love about this feel good story?
  • Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium 
  • Nanny McPhee
  • Mr. Popper's Penquins - I am not normally a fan of Jim Carrey, although I do like his more recent movies better, but this is a fantastic family film about what's really important in life and it's really funny.  
  • Akeelah and the Bee - Proof that you background doesn't have to define you.  
  • The Sand Lot
  • Any of the  Toy Story  movies, they seem to get better with each sequel, and any other Disney-Pixar film for that matter, and yes, like many other adults I know, I cried during the third one.  
  • Where the Red Fern Grows - bring the tissues.  
  • Annie - fun songs.  
  • Anne of Green Gables and all the sequels
There are many more great family films out there, but it takes some looking to find them.  

Since I've dedicated my blog to sharing my savings ideas with you, here's how we pay for movies:  

We rent from Redbox because the $1.20/night is a really cheap way to go and since there are 3 of them within 10 blocks, it's not a big deal to return it.  We've headed out at 11:45pm before, just to avoid the extra days charge.  Plus if one doesn't have the movie we want, another usually does and we don't have far to go.  

We also love the live-stream feature from Netflix.  We stream through our Wii, but many of the new TV's are capable of streaming directly from the internet.  Another great feature for Netflix, is that you can live stream through 2 devices at once, be it your laptop, tablet or smart phone.  We try to only use it when we have WiFi, but it's been a great entertainer when we couldn't get a sitter and needed the kids kept busy.  There are a lot of good family movies and kids' shows, although not a lot of new releases this way.  We used to have their DVD program as well, but at the time we had to go to the post office to get our mail and I constantly forgot to take it with me so we paid a lot of extra money to have one or 2 movies a month.  We now have a mailbox at our house, so I may add it back on since it's more convenient to return them.  

We no longer have cable or satellite in an effort to save money, but there are so many TV programs (reruns) that my kids can always find something to watch.  Plus we don't have to watch commercials so the kids aren't bombarded with advertising.   

Bow Pillow Project

I saw a link for this on Pinterest (Click here to see the original) - I wasn't lying when I said I was addicted - and decided it would be a great  beginning sewing project for my 5yo.  It's going to go on the bench on my back porch.  I think/hope.  I had everything on hand except the pillow form.  There were no directions for the original, but I have a background in sewing and decided to knock it off.  It was a fun project to do with my daughter on a rainy afternoon.

Materials list:
  • 3/4 yard of burlap
  • 1/2 yard of fabric for lining (I used unbleached muslin)
  • thread to match burlap
  • 14"x14" pillow form
  • 12" zipper (optional) or hand sewing needle
  • basic sewing supplies
    • scissors or rotary cutter, mat and ruler
    • pins
    • sewing machine
Getting started:
Cut out your fabric using the guidlines below:

Sewing instructions:
  1. Start with the 16"x8" pieces of burlap and turn each of the 16" long edges under 1/4" and using a wide zigzag stitch sew in place catching the raw edge in the stitching.
  2. Next take the 8"x4" pieces and turn the 8" edge under 1/4" and using a wide zigzag stitch sew in place catching the raw edge in the stitching.
  3. Fold each of the 8"x4" pieces in half across the narrow side (you should have a square) and line up the 4" raw edges. 
  4. Sew sew together to create a loop stitching 1/2" from the edge.
  5. Use a wide zigzag stitch to finish raw edges. 
  6. Turn loops right side out and set aside.  
  7. Pin one piece of muslin to the back of each of the 15"x15" pieces of burlap.  
  8. Using a very wide zigzag stitch, sew around one of the burlap/muslin pieces to finish the edges and prevent unraveling.  Set piece aside - this will be the pillow back.
  9. With the remaining piece of burlap/muslin (pinned together) center the 8" side of one of the 16"x8" pieces along one edge and pin in place.
  10. Take the other 16"x8" piece and lay across the first one, centering it along the adjacent side.                                                                                                  
  11. Zigzag along raw edges of pinned sides only.  
  12. Slide one "loop" over each of the 16"x8" pieces.  Note: the bottom one will not show, but if the edges peek out and you don't like it, fold one end of the loop inside about an inch.    
  13. Pin each of the 16"x8" pieces to the 15"x15" on the opposite side. 
  14. Zigzag along the raw two remaining raw edges.  This is the pillow front.
  15. Place the pillow back and pillow front right sides together (burlap touching) and pin around all sides.  
  16. On one side pin 2-1/2" from each edge and leave the center unpinned. 
  17. Stitch (as shown above with blue line) around the pillow 1/2" from the edge, stitching to the edge of the fabric at the beginning and the end. 
  18. Turn pillow right side out.
  19. Insert pillow form.
  20. Sew opening closed by hand.   
Note: If you are an experienced sewer and would like to put in a zipper, before pinning front and backs together, insert zipper into bottom seam, then sew remaining side seams.