Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thoughts on the foodie-go-round

This morning I was reading an article on Get Rich Slowly about Donna Freedman (the author) "jumping off the foodie-go-round." As a good title is wont to do, it drew me in because I just KNEW there was going to be some juicy advice in there, fraught with commenters with knee-jerk reactions.

I'm proud that I managed to jump off the train of reading those comments before I gave myself an aneurism. A number of them were arrogant as expected, from both sides of the spectrum. Others were very much "Your Mileage May Very" attitude, which I appreciate and an attitude I am striving to achieve here at Chez Waxing Moon.

On the one hand, I agree with Donna. If you are short on time and you don't care about variety, don't worry about it. However, I agree with her because of her examples, and she missed articulating a key point: She's advocating putting a VARIETY of items into a pot, and eating off it for days. There is a big difference between eating off a pot of chili full of fiber and veggies and possibly meat or your protein-substitute of choice, or off the curry or stir fry full of the same, versus eating off a bowl of plain rice for a week. The latter is depriving you of nutritional value, whereas the former is still going to give you some fairly normal amounts of nutrients, albeit the same ones for a few days.

My partner and I had a roommate at one point who honestly felt that we were "wasteful" because we would cook a pot of chili and take a week to eat it, eating other foods in between. He honestly felt that we should make food and eat off it until it was gone before we should make anything else. Now, I'm not saying we never threw out food, because we did. Things would get shoved to the back of the fridge and lost, I would bring home restaurant leftovers for the boys and they wouldn't eat them "out of respect" despite being told "I will not eat this, please eat it or it's getting thrown away." Even now, because we bring home bargain groceries and don't store them properly (that's a post for another day), we throw away more food than I like.

I just can't do that. I need variety. I have had problems with my appetite for as long as I can remember, and the only way I can seem to combat that is by keeping my food fresh and exciting all the time. Or nachos. I'm always a fan of nachos. It's funny now some of the tips for getting kids to eat (especially more veggies) applies so much to me. Make it dippable, and I'm probably on board. Finger foods are a big fave. I actually LIKE adding extra "stuff" to foods that wouldn't otherwise be there, like carrot/zucchini puree to my chili or protein powder to oatmeal. I like boosting my nutrient values where I can.

In the article, Donna also mentions specifically eating it for 3 meals in 5 days or so. THERE ARE OTHER MEALS IN THERE! Those meals add variety of nutrients to the table. So while it was written in such a way as to be very YMMV and inciting responses, honestly? This just boils down to the same advice we keep seeing: Eat your damn leftovers, save money and time. Still, props to her for getting people to read the article, even if her message was couched in so much backpedaling and inflammatory language in an attempt to sound fresh and exciting as to be lost.

Really though, eat your leftovers. It will save you money. And is something we will probably discuss regularly here at HJ Waxing Moon. One day I'll share my awesome stuffed green peppers recipe with you, which is the beginnings of Mexi-casserole later in the week, when layered with red beans and rice. Three of my favorite meals!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Quick & Dirty: Top Sheets

My partner and I hate top sheets. Neither of us has used them since we were old enough to stop putting them on the beds. I had a tendency to kick them off in the night, while keeping the comforter firmly in place.

But of course, when you buy sheet sets, they come with this huge piece of fabric. Bonus fabric! What do we do with them?
  • Curtains: If the "head" end is sewn on the sides, just snip a couple threads and you have a curtain panel that matches your sheets.
  • Pillow cases: A few seams and you have extra pillow cases or even a body-pillow case!
  • Cut it up for "family cloth" or cleaning rags or whatever else suits your fancy.
  • Face cleaning cloths!
  • Couch covers--when you have OCD and three cats who shed badly and a flea infestation (though we got both those figured out, phew!), you want couch covers you can remove to wash easily and regularly.
And my newest favorite: Bed skirt. Put the flat sheet under the mattress, on top of the box spring. If you have a footboard, you can tuck it under at the foot. Et Voila! You have a bedskirt that matches your sheets.
In our case, we have three navy blue fitted sheets, and a few navy top sheets, a bunch of navy pillow cases... I mean, these are not sets, I picked up some extra fitted sheets at a thrift store because I was tired of running out of sheets or paying for extra flat sheets I'd just need to store. It's actually kind of fun just having various shades of navy, so it's not a huge deal to grab stuff that isn't Matchy Matchy.
That's your Quick & Dirty short-list of tips for today. How are top sheets used in your house?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Grocery Shopping: To coupon or price book?

You can find more detailed information about grocery shopping price books at Get Rich Slowly and Organized Home (both links take you straight to their price book articles) so I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, as a kitchen manager and chef, I have been sold on the concept of price books--they're imperative to costing recipes.

I haven't really used them outside of work, though. Not because I don't think you should, but a) because I did it at work and didn't want to do that at home too; and b) because I have a head for numbers and am obsessed with getting the best deal, so I do very well with that without writing things down. When I moved from Michigan where I knew all my prices (and had determined that Shop At Meijer was the best way to save money) to Seattle where I didn't know the prices and had a lot of other projects on my plate, I didn't pick it up then either. Nonetheless, I think it's a good idea.

I have heard a lot of people, especially recently, getting into the Extreme Couponing thing. I took some time to research that process, and weigh the pros and cons for myself and my situation to determine which of them would save me the most money in my own shopping habits--or whether I could combine them!

Couponing:
First, what is Couponing? Well, originally it meant picking up newspapers and cutting coupons for all the items which you or your family would use. These coupons are almost exclusively for large national brands who are hoping you will try their product. In the Information Age, this process has gone Online. There are websites such as The Grocery Game and Grocery Mom that have online (usually printable) coupons for all sorts of household cleaners, food items, Health $ Beauty (aka toiletries) and other non-perishables.

The Pros:
  • Save money on items you use all the time!
  • Start saving right away, as soon as the next time you go to the store.
  • Some places even DOUBLE the coupons for extra savings!
  • When combined with sales, you can spend next to nothing on Colgate toothpaste, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Charmin toilet paper, and Windex.

The Cons:
  • Look at that list. You have to buy Windex, not "store brand blue ammonia cleaner" and certainly not a giant bottle of store brand vinegar. It's Kraft Mac & Cheese, not store brand or home-made with whole wheat pasta and real cheese. Now, if you're like me and your princess butt likes Charmin, it's probably worth it to clip every coupon you can find for it.
  • No fresh produce!
  • No bulk-bin items.
  • You have to spend the time: finding the coupons; cutting/printing coupons; sorting them. Every time. Even after setting up, this can take HOURS per week.
  • You spend the space in your home and your life with a notebook full of paper.
  • Can we not ignore the paper being wasted here?
  • You have to remember to take the coupons with you (this is where I fail the most).
  • You then have to remember to USE THEM when you check out. (ProTip: if you get out to the car and realize you forgot to use your coupons, a lot of customer service desks, especially Meijer, will adjust your receipt for you. It's ALWAYS worth asking.)
  • Not all places take printed coupons.
  • To get the best prices, it can often mean stockpiling, which takes space.
  • A lot of cashiers HATE the extreme coupon folks, because so many of them try to cheat the system, and invariably it takes a very long time to cash out--time that you are spending too, so don't forget to build that into your day.

The Price Book:
A price book is a place where you track prices of all the things you buy. Typically, they tell you to get started by digging up all your receipts for the last month or so, and recording the prices of everything you bought and where. But it works best if you track unit prices.

For example, if you ALWAYS buy tomato sauce in 8 oz cans (maybe all your recipes call for that size and you don't want to have to figure out how to use the leftovers), maybe you just need to track the price of an 8 oz can. But what if the 12 oz cans go on sale? Is it a better buy, even if you account for having to figure out how to use a 4 oz portion of tomato sauce? What if you use a LOT of tomato sauce, and want to maybe buy the 96 oz can at the food service store? If you know how much you are paying per ounce, you can easily figure out the best deal.

The Pros:
  • No keeping track of a zillion little coupons, everything is in one place.
  • You can track right from your receipts.
  • You can go fully digital in the records-keeping. Saves trees, and if you have a smart phone you can check prices in-store.
  • Know when to buy in bulk and when it's not worth the effort/money.
  • Once set up, it takes very little effort to update prices regularly.
  • Once set up, you can start to see patterns in the pricing, and stock up only as much as you need. If ranch dressing is on sale every 6 weeks, you only need to buy enough to get you through that long.
  • If you don't want to go all-digital, the information can be kept in a small spiral notebook that you can carry around with you.
  • Bulk-bin items too!
  • YOU get to pick what you will buy at the best price. If that means always getting fresh produce and store brand items for cleaning, you have control over that with the knowledge that no matter what you buy, you can get the best possible price on it.
The Cons:
  • If you only use the receipts of things you actually purchase, you don't know if you're getting the best deal when you purchase it. Getting set up doesn't save you money, and you don't get all the pertinent information from surrounding stores.
  • It does take time to set up, though I don't think any more than the coupon notebook does.
  • Getting the best deal on some things means driving to multiple stores--you have to account for the time and gas in the savings here, and a lot of people don't consider that (it's a pet peeve of mine that all the articles I've seen comparing these two doesn't account for the gas!).
  • To go digital, you have to have some basic computer and spreadsheet knowledge.
  • If you don't have a smartphone, all-digital records means you can't check prices from the store.
  • If you want all the correct information, you have to put more time into getting set up.
  • No double-savings.

Combining the two:
Using both systems pretty much boils down very nicely to this: It takes extra time to set up, but it can significantly increase the savings. If you're trying to choose between the two because you like some of the benefits of both systems and you have/don't mind taking the time, just do both. For people who are time-rich and cash-poor, this is the best system you can use. Imagine buying all the toothpaste you need for the year when it's on sale and you have coupons that double. You could get them for next to free!

My choice:
When I originally did this cost-benefit analysis, I ended up deciding that whatever information I could keep in my head for a price book was good enough for me. After searching around for a few weeks, I discovered that Meijer almost always had what I wanted at the best price, plus I didn't need to worry about driving around to a bunch of different stores. I was willing to pay an extra 50 cents for a bottle of dressing if it meant no HFCS and not having to make an extra stop.

Now that we are moving to Vancouver, and there are SO many stores within a small area, and I don't know their pricing strategies. Also, Pops' diet (he's going vegetarian) requires a LOT of fresh produce, and my partner and I eat a lot of fresh foods as well. Between fresh foods and food-grade cleansers*, plus shopping at restaurant supply stores that don't take coupons, over 3/4 of my purchases don't have coupons to begin with. It's not worth my time hunting down coupons when they don't usually apply to me (though now that we will have a daily paper, I do skim through whatever comes in, just in case). I will, however, check out the ad papers even online to get prices for my price book. That way I can compare the sale prices of a few different places from the comfort of my couch, and get as much information for my price book as I can before even stepping foot in the store.

The biggest difference between my home price book and my ones for work is that the ones for work don't need to keep archival data. By this I mean that I only need to know the most recent price I actually paid for an item, because I need to know how much money is sitting on the shelf and how much it will cost to serve it to my customers. I could keep enough basic pricing guide in my head to not bother saving it, so I only kept a seasonal snapshot of former prices. At home, I need to track all those prices and compare past to present. So my set-up has to be a little different. I'll happily share my system once I decide how I'm going to use it.

What about you? Do you play The Grocery Game? When you empty a bottle of ketchup, do you head for the stash of it, or put it on the shopping list? Do you have a price-book system you like? Tell us in the comments!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Logistics Management and moving long-distance

For the past three weeks, my partner (who needs a nickname!) and I have been getting ourselves together for The Big Move. As the more organized of the two of us (and the one who manages the household finances anyway), I have taken on the responsibility of a lot of logistics management. This is something with which I have a great deal of experience in my personal life and especially my career, so it comes fairly natural. "Natural" doesn't make it any less stressful or exhausting though, and it's been a struggle to keep everything together. Still, I have learned a few things that would be worth sharing for anyone trying to move longer distances.

  • Set a date and stick to it. The best piece of advice I ever received was from the friend who helped me decide to move to Seattle. He told me to set a date, make myself financially (or socially) responsible for it if I can, then just stick to it. It helps to relieve the uncertainty of The Unknown, and a lot of plans can't be made until you make this step. It also goes with the whole theory of inertia, that you have set that ball in motion and will now need to do something intentional to stop it.
  • Truck vs. Trips. Depending on how far you're moving and what your time-frame looks like, you may not want to rent a moving truck. But it's worth the hour or less of your time to do a cost/benefit analysis of the situation. Ask yourself: How much would a rental truck cost with and without any coupons? How many trips would it take me to move everything in my personal vehicle (if you have one!) and how much does that cost*? Do I have any friends with trucks who would be willing to help move furniture, and is our relationship in a place where I'm willing to ask them? (* A good rule of thumb for cars is $1/mile when you include insurance and gas and maintenance, more if you don't typically drive a lot, have really high insurance, or a gas-guzzler.) Don't forget to include the hassle!! Some people prefer to move things over slowly, a few boxes at a time and unpack them as they go. That can be great in an in-town move, but less so long-distance. But if renting a truck and moving all at once is a hassle for you, then factor that into your calculations.
  • To Do Lists! You're going to think of things you want or need to do and can't accomplish the moment you think of them. Making one to-do list can make it seem very overwhelming. Assuming we were not moving anything until my partner got hired in our new town, we have separate lists of things to do FOR job hunting; things to do WHILE job hunting but before moving; the actual moving-day/week process; at the current apartment after we move; projects at the house after we're moved in; places we need to find (the most convenient/preferred grocery store, church, storage unit, bus routing, library, etc.). This way I don't need to sort through things like "find the library" and "update resume" when I'm trying to remember what to do during crazy-time on moving day.
  • Join some groups online. I feel comfortable saying this because you're already here, online, reading this. Whether you join a LiveJournal community, check out some Meet-Up groups, find the local church you want to join and sign up for e-mail lists, or whatever else you can think of, it's always good to start meeting new people first, and finding out as much information as you can. If people have already seen your name on the e-groups, they'll be even more excited to meet you in person when you show up.

These are my tips for today. What do you like to do to get organized before a big move?

Long is the journey, rough is the road

I spent the first 18-and-a-half years of my life in one home. Then the week I graduated high school, my parents bought a house and we moved (a whole .7 miles, the trauma!). After that, it seemed I was constantly in a state of flux. I was back and forth around town between the dorms or various apartments and back to my parents' house a few times until I was 23, when I moved in with my Grandma after a bad break-up and urgent move. The plan was that I would be back out on my own pretty quickly, but who can give up living in a house where you have your own sitting room in the basement and cheap rent? Especially when it comes with peace of mind for the family that Gran was getting checked in on regularly.

Well, when you feel the call of the Unknown, you go. And that's how I found myself deciding a couple days before Christmas one year that I was moving to Seattle. In three weeks. I had all the "right reasons" in the world. The Michigan economy was still tanking with no end in sight, I had no kids,  no significant other, no mortgage or lease, and had just recently left my job. I had the offer, if I went in January instead of the following August like I'd planned, of a free place to stay for 6-8 weeks while I job hunted and found an apartment. But none of those reasons were why I left then. In my heart I knew that something else was driving me, something else was pushing me to go, not to wait.

Three months after I left my home of 26 years, the day my lover and partner in crime asked me to be his girlfriend, I knew why it was I'd had to go so soon. Ever since, I've known that whatever comes our way, we're on the right path together. It's a glorious feeling.

Don't worry, the gushing is over, you can put down the vom-bucket. Grab the tissues though.

The sad news is that my partner's dad has cancer, and we are moving away from our home to live with his parents and help them care for themselves, and so my partner can spend more time with his dad before the end is upon us.

We're keeping our spirits high as much as possible, looking on the bright side (pool table in the garage! no stairs for my bad knees to complain about taking!), trying to keep our cool and Just Keep Swimming. I expect a total mental breakdown when the crisis point is over, but in the meantime, it's all GoGoGoGoGo.

It's actually because of this process that I started this blog. Between moving cross-country and now this long-distance impending move, I'm learning a lot (sometimes the hard way) about how to do things. We will also have a lot more House projects to work on in the new place, now that we have a garden available to grow some food and a wonderfully-sized kitchen to work with and make some excellent meals. Not to mention the exciting process of two people with a fully-functional home integrating into someone else's fully-furnished abode. We are looking forward to the projects ahead of us, and hoping that sharing the journey will at worst be a fun diversion and entertaining to look back upon in our golden years. At best, maybe we can help some other folks along the way!

About the name

HJ
That's me! Heather Jean. I almost can't believe I'm using my real name on the internet, but there it is. I started using my middle name with my first name when I was in 4th grade, and a lot of family members and close friends from school will go back and forth. It just kind of stuck, and now it's almost one word. HeatherJean.

Waxing Moon
I admit it, this was a screen name I picked in a former life as a candle lady. But after the play on words of selling candles was gone, I couldn't help but want to keep the screen name. It spoke to me somehow, as if it had come out of the Cosmos. It's become a reminder that my life isn't over, it's not even half over. It's just beginning. Life isn't full yet. I'm still trying to fill it up. For someone who struggles with depression, it's a good reminder.
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