Sunday, June 24, 2012

Seriously, that's all I paid...

     Being a gal with an eye for a bargain, the first place I head is the clearance racks.  This requires you to be a bit of a determined risk taker.  It's always hit or miss and what most bargain hunters don't tell you is how many times they strike out.  I probably only find great deals 10% of the time I check out the clearance.  Sometimes, there's simply nothing I need.  Other times, I see things we need but not the sizes we need.  
     When bargain shopping for your kids it takes a little planning.  My kids have been at the same percentile in height since their 3 month check up.  I have kids that grow pretty steadily from year to year.  That's not to say they don't have growth spurts.  My oldest daughter grew 2-1/2 inches in three weeks before her second birthday.  She also slept 16 hours a day during that time too, which was worrisome, but wow, could I get stuff done.  Back to the point.  You know your kids and how they grow.  Once they quit changing sizes monthly you can pretty buy ahead things they'll grow into without worrying that they won't be able to wear it during the right season.  I try to keep $20 on hand for bargain shopping so I don't let it take over, but I don't have to miss out on a great buy.  
     I try to buy basic items ahead.  Jeans, denim shorts, khakis, polo shirts, solid tees, hoodies, etc.  One of my best bargains was the Target clearance rack where they had marked down toddler sized hoodies to $1.25 I bought 4 each (one per size) of navy and gray in 2T, 3T, 4T and 5T - these were basic plain hoodies and for $10 I  was stocked through toddler-hood.  Plus, the plain solid color made them somewhat unisex and you can always embellish them later with patches or bedazzles.  I've also found Target to be a great spot for the basics - especially for the boys - if you aren't able to catch a clearance bonanza.  Their Legendary Gold jeans are made by Wrangler and the past 3 years they've ran them at $7-$8 (depending on the size) in August, as a Black Friday doorbuster, and usually in the spring.  They've held up as good as the name brand ones I've bought and come in slim and husky sizes and have adjustable waists.  I was told their polo shirts were made in the same factory as Ralph Lauren's.  I don't know if it's true or not, but I've never had a bad one, they run those at pretty good prices too.  I just picked some up on sale for $6 each and I've snagged them for about $4 each on clearance.  They change the colors each season but my boys don't care.  I love the girls basic shorts, leggings and tees from there too.  You can usually find trendy colors and mix them with clearance finds from higher end stores.  Gymboree is my favorite store for the girls things.  They have a Gymbucks program and I make sure to purchase a gift card in whatever amount of Gymbucks I earned so when it comes time to redeem them, I have the money set aside.  
     If you plan to shop ahead - get organized.  Purchase several medium sized plastic storage totes with lids (or use sturdy card board boxes).  Label each tote with a size and fill it as you find items.  I found Gymboree denim bib overalls once at TJ Maxx for $5 a pair and bought one in each size they had.  Once the kids grow into the clothes in the tote, keep it and as they grow out of them, reuse them for storing hand-me-downs.  I don't stock up unless it's AT LEAST 50% off, usually 75% to buy mass quantities.  I also try to buy utilitarian items in gender neutral colors.  For instance snowbibs - we live in a four season climate - by purchasing them in basic black I can pass them from my boys to the girls.  We have some winters they wear them several times a week and others they only wear them several times, but when you need them...
     Always buy quality over quantity.  The exception is items they'll only wear once or twice and summer flip flops. My kids have lost sooooo many flip flops.  I can usually find them at Target or Children's place for $2.50/pair and those hold up well.  We try to make sure our boys get the most out of their suits, so we have them wear them to church on Easter Sunday, to the free symphony concert, etc.  Fortunately, I have 2 boys so I do get to hand them down and they're still gently used enough to resell once the younger one has outgrown them.  I also don't put a lot of money into dress shoes or snow boots.  Our kids don't wear boots to school and since they just wear them a couple of hours at a time to play in the snow they aren't that hard on them.  However if you live in an area with really hard winters, you may want to get good ones.  Think about where and how you live and put the money into the items they'll use a lot - but try and find it on clearance.  I scored on a pair of shoes my daughter wanted.  Our local children's shoe store sells Keen and Merrill but always $15-$20 above MSRP.  She saw a pair of pink Merrill slip-ons at a whopping $70.  I passed despite her tantrum and we found the same ones on clearance 1 size bigger than her current size for $25 at another store out of town.  It was late April and they were suede, so they'd fit perfectly in the fall.  I had picked up winter fashion boots earlier that week for $10 a pair for each of the girls.  
     Once you're done with the hand me downs, sell what is still gently used such as special occasion clothing at a resale or consignment shop.  Sell the play clothes in a rummage sale and promptly donate what isn't sold.  Reason - kids clothes go through trends.  No matter how much you paid for it, if it's last year's trend, no one wants to buy it a garage sale, so hanging onto it and putting out every year at your annual sale, won't eventually sell it.  The exeption:  Infant clothes such as onsies, sleep-n-plays, gowns (with the elastic opening at the bottoms), socks and bibs.  Infant outfits usually sell well too.  Especially cute boys stuff.  It will outsell the girls stuff.  That's because everyone LOVES to buy for baby girls.  We received ten times the clothing for our daughter (3rd child) because my husband's coworkers couldn't resist buying frilly pink little outfits.  We didn't have to buy anything until she was almost a year old.  
     Find a system that works for you, whether it's plastic totes (I like the clear ones so you can see the contents) or copy paper boxes you bring home from the office, the key is to organize it so you can get to it when you need it and get rid of it when you're done.

Remember - it's only a bargain if you use it.  

Weekly Therapy

My husband and I joined a Life Group at our church.  It's the hip thing to do at our church.  Basically a Bible study but better.  They try to limit it to about 10 couples or less.  The key is to make sure all the people in yours are serious about regular attendance.  It's a great way to meet people and get to know them in a "safe" environment.  We meet at someone's house, although a couple of groups meet at the church.  You can take turns hosting or if someone is willing and has the space, always meet at one house.  We have a carry-in dinner and eat first, then send the kids off with a babysitter in another room.  Get a good sitter.  Pay her well.  If your church doesn't have life groups, organize your own.  Now, there's usually a lesson plan to follow and good group discussion, but don't get overly discouraged if you get off topic.  Just steer back onto the subject and enjoy an opportunity for grown up conversation that is uninterrupted by kids!  I love that we have a carry-in.  Some groups sign up via email, that involves a lot of reading emails and keeping track of duplicates.  I recommend creating a group on facebook, provided you are all on facebook.  You can use it as your group bulletin board and make it private so only group members can see it.  Post sign-up lists for meals, prayer requests, and other general info.  It's a great way to communicate and not have to open several dozen emails a week.  This has become our weekly family night out.  We get to eat, our kids play with other kids, have adult conversation and over the weeks the group becomes very close.  It's like building an extended family and a great emotional support network.  I also belong to one for just mom's of young kids.  Love this one.  It's like group therapy.  We do Christian reading.  Sometimes we only spend 15 minutes on the topic, but there's always wonderful discussion and I've had a chance to build close relationships with some of them.  If you're new to the area or just don't have a chance to get out much this is such a great way to find new friends.  Plus it's inexpensive - you would be feeding your own family anyway.

A few rules if you're going to start your own group:
  • What happens in the group stays in the group.  VERY IMPORTANT!!  This isn't an opportunity to glean gossip fodder. 
  • Decide up front how you will pay the sitter.  Per kid, per family, equally divided between those with kids, etc.  Stick to the plan.  Don't change the rules in the middle of the game. 
  • Find a good sitter.  Remember others have different parenting styles, so you may love a sitter only to find others are not so fond of her -be willing to compromise.  I recommend finding a more mature teen, at least 16 if not college age (especially if you're in a college town).  
  • Set rules for the sitter up front: diaper clad children should be returned to their parents with clean dry pants, hands and faces cleaned after eating, interrupt only if there is blood shed or excessive crying after an injury.  You have a sitter so you can have uninterrupted conversation so make sure she/he can handle that.  
  • Have a back-up plan or rule for cancellation.  You don't want to get stuck eating salad and dessert because the person bringing the entree couldn't make it at the last minute.  
  • Create a phone/email list for the group.  
  •  Designate a group leader or someone who can facilitate the discussion.  
  • If your church doesn't have a program in place, let the group vote on a topic.  It can be directly from the Bible or other Christian reading.  There are many resources out there and many topics from marriage enrichment to parenting to financial planning.
By meeting with others in your faith, you can form close relationships and grow spiritually as well as personally.  Plus the chance to socialize with others on a regular basis is therapeutic.  I've seen people open up and share their concerns or fears about something to find they aren't alone and it's so uplifting to have honest conversations about life experiences and know you aren't alone in your thinking or the situation.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

One Pork Loin, Three meals

When I met my husband, I had never purchased a pork loin.  I don't remember my mother ever having bought one either.  I had seen it in the grocery, this giant chunk of meat, and wondered how on earth to prepare it and when would I ever have an army big enough to eat it all.  I have at least 6 ways we make it on a regular basis.  Typically when it goes on sale, I buy at least three of them and stock my freezer.  The best thing about it is that you can customize your portions when you divide it up.  When I was single I ate out a lot, I managed restaurants so there was never a shortage of food, and why go home and make all that mess to cook for myself and have to clean it up.  

Wow, in the past year or so meats and many other staples in our diet have risen in price considerably.  Feeding a large or semi-large family can be costly these days.  In order to keep our grocery budget in control I try to shop for meats ONLY when they are on sale and then stock up.  Pork loin, chicken breasts, and ground beef are pretty much staples in our home.  Pound-wise a pork loin is typically enough to feed a family of four 3-4 meals.  I buy several when the go on sale.  I keep plenty of plastic freezer bags on hand.  Our grocery offers additional discounts on the family packs of meat, so I buy larger portions and repackage at home.  

Meal one: Boneless Pork Chops
Cut it into chops.  If you look at each end of the pork loin, you should see one end that looks like a boneless pork chop.  The other end may look the same or it may be marbled looking with a darker meat as well as the white meat.  I try to get ones that each end looks like a boneless pork chop whenever possible.  It's easier to work with.  That's not always possible, but dig through the display and you should be able to find a couple of good ones.  
If you cut 3/4 inch chops off the nicer end you should be able to get enough for one meal for your family.  We have four kids, but I only cut 5 because these are pretty big and our girls will never eat a whole one, so I just cut the fifth one in half.  The great thing is you can cut as many as you need, instead of trying to find a package that has the right amount for your family.  
Our favorite seasoning for chops is the Jamaican Jerk seasoning from Pampered Chef, otherwise, salt and pepper, maybe a little garlic powder.  

Meal two: Teriyaki Pork Roast
Cut the next section into a roast about 4"-5" long.  If you're having company, make it bigger.  This is how I had it the first time.  It was served at our wedding reception with my mother-in-law's marinade recipe.  She says the recipe I have written down isn't the one she gave me but I swear it is.  
Here goes:  
Judy's Teriyaki Marinade
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup cooking sherry
1-2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced or 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt (optional)  I don't add this because there is so much sodium in the soy sauce.  
Whisk all the ingredients together until the brown sugar dissolves completely.  Soak pork roast in it for at least 2 hours prior to cooking or overnight for a really strong flavor.  Bake about an hour, until juices run clear.  

Do ahead option: Place roast in a freezer bag.  Pour marinade over it.  Seal the bag making sure to carefully squeeze out all the air.  Freeze until ready to use.  Thaw at least 24 hours ahead of cooking.  

Meal three:  Barbecued Pork 
Cut remaining pork into 1" slices and place in a covered baking dish.  
Bake 1-1/2 to 2 hours at 350 degrees F.  Let sit for 30 minutes and drain off any extra juices and discard the fatty pieces.  Break the meat up with 2 forks, it should be tender enough to fall apart pretty easily.  Pour in 1/2 of a 16oz of your favorite barbecue sauce and stir in well, add more to taste.  We like ours sloppy so we use most of a bottle (2 if we use the whole pork loin).  You may have leftovers on this one or have enough for 2 meals depending on how big your pork loin was.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Our Favorite Potato Recipe

I got this from my best friend.  She just basically told me how she made it after I tried it at her house, but I loved it so much I made it at home.  I don't really have a name for it.  Her husband makes it and since he was raised near Hamburg, Germany she calls them German Potatoes.  There are only four ingredients which makes it fairly simple.  My kids love it.  It's hearty enough to be an entree, great for breakfast or brunch, although we usually have it as a side dish for dinner.  

You'll need a 1lb of bacon, sliced into 1/2" pieces; 1 medium onion, chopped; 5-6 medium potatoes cut into 1" pieces; and last but not least black pepper.  

In a large skillet fry the bacon over medium heat.  You don't need a lean bacon for this because you'll need the bacon grease to fry the potatoes, so just buy the cheap stuff.  If you use lean bacon, you may have to add some olive oil when you add the potatoes.  

Once the bacon has cooked long enough to release most of the grease add the onions and black pepper to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon).  Continue cooking until onions soften and just start to become translucent.  

Next add the potatoes, stirring well to coat with the bacon grease.  Cover and cook until potatoes are soft stirring every 2-3 minutes.  Remove lid and cook until edges of potatoes start to get crispy.  Serve hot.  

Best Popsicle Recipe EVER!

Black Cherry Popsicle
I live in east central Indiana.  Our weather is very unpredictable except for July and August.  It will be hot, it will be humid and there will be NO breeze or rain.  It's virtually an outdoor sauna, there is no dip in the temperature when you step into the shade.  You are drenched with sweat by the time you walk from your front door to the mailbox.  And we would love to trade it for a dry heat.  So in the summer we look for ways to stay cool and for yummy cold treats.  These popsicles are combination of several recipes I've tried and they turn out awesome every time.  It starts with a basic recipe and you can create variations from that.  It costs less than $2 per batch and makes 16-20 popsicles.  Last summer I got another brand of flavored gelatin for 20 cents a box, Koolaid was on sale for 10 cents a pack, there's about 50 cents in the yogurt and about 50 cents for the sugar.  Much cheaper than purchased gourmet popsicles that average $1 each.  :)  

Basic recipe:
1 small box flavored gelation (aka: Jello)
1 pouch of unsweetened soft drink mix that makes 2qts (aka: Koolaid packet)
2 cups sugar
2 cups boiling water
2 cups ice cold water
1 cup plain or vanilla yogurt (This is important because it creates a creamy texture so it's not rock-hard when you bite into it.) (If yogurt grosses you out, use heavy cream instead, although it's a bit more fattening.)
1. Mix gelatin and drink mix in a large mixing bowl.
2. Pour boiling water over the mixture and stir quickly with a wire whisk.
3. Add sugar and stir until dissolved.
4. Add cold water and stir.
5. Whisk in yogurt.

6. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze. 

(note: using a ladle and a small funnel is helpful and less messy.)

7. Once frozen, place popscicle mold in a bowl of warm water for 30-60 seconds to release popscicles for eating.  ENJOY!

Tip: If your kids have lost the handles that come with the molds, cover them with a stiff plastic wrap, such as press-n-seal kind, with a sharp knife cut a small slit in the plastic wrap - smaller than your popsicle stick - and insert the sticks. The plastic wrap will keep them upright and if you cut the slits smaller, you can push them in as far as you want instead of them being all the way to the end.

The great thing about this recipe is that there are now Jello flavors that match Koolaid flavors.  You could also add chopped or pureed fruit, use complimentary flavored yogurts instead of plain yogurt, or throw the entire mixture into an ice cream freezer and make your own sherbet.  Place 1-2 scoops of sherbet in a glass and top with sparkling fruit juice or lemon-lime soda.  You could also add flavored liquors for a more grown up treat. 

Our favorite combinations:
  • Black Cherry Jello, Black Cherry Koolaid, Cherry yogurt (or plain yogurt and diced black cherries)
  • Island Pineapple Jello, Orange Koolaid, add mashed banana and/or crushed pineapple with the yogurt (This is my personal favorite)
  • Berry Blue Jello, Berry Blue Koolaid
  • Wild Strawberry Jello, Strawberry Kiwi Koolaid, strawberry yogurt instead of plain
  • Strawberry Jello, Strawberry Lemonade Koolaid, strawberry yogurt instead of plain (I saw a strawberry lemonade Jello, but haven't tried it yet.)