February Grocery Tally

February is pretty much over- I don’t think I’ll be at the grocery store again this week since we went this morning, and I have my meal plan done for the week.

February’s total includes a big trip to Costco to stock up on bulk items- we receive a refund check from our credit card company every year that can only be spent at Costco.  I included it here, even though it never affected our bank account.  We ate more meat this month than we normally do (two chickens)- I’m trying to add a bit more meat to my family’s diet since it’s good nutrition, it will add some variety, I can get at least three meals out of each bird, and it’s something I know my kids will eat.  I’m not completely OK with buying factory farm chickens, but I’m not ready to drop $25 on a chicken either.  Not sure what I’m going to do there, but it is what it is for now.

I’m in the novel position of trying to increase my grocery spending- I want to add different flavors to my family’s palate.  I sprang for the $6 chunk of goat cheese for one meal, I got the expensive stone ground mustard (about $3, but still more than the generic yellow!)  I bought the leeks that looked good, even though they’re far more expensive than yellow storage onions.  I want to add more seafood, but want sustainable seafood.  Destroying an ecosystem seems more damaging than factory farmed chicken, for some reason.  Not sure if my logic is sound there.

February Total: $204.77

  • Meat $9.44
  • Pantry $67.84
  • Produce $49.85
  • Dairy $34.97
  • Eggs $5.43
  • Party Food $11.99
  • Snacks (cookies, crackers, etc.) $10.77
  • Bread $2.50
  • Prepared Meals (Pizza) $11.98

I should also add that my parents spoil my kids (and me!!) rotten- the other day, Dad dropped off a few pounds of strawberries, some watermelons, and a big bag of frozen peas…just because he heard they were my daughter’s favorites.  So, I do buy most of our food, but certainly not all 🙂

 

January Grocery Tally

This month totally doesn’t count, and I’m not 100% certain I found all the receipts to enter them into my database.  We were also unemployed, and just entering the “freak out” stage where I basically stand on a table shouting “WE WILL SPEND NO MONEY EVER AGAIN UNTIL WE HAVE STEADY EMPLOYMENT!”

January grocery total: $47.91

  • Meat $18.38
  • Pantry items $4.86
  • Produce $11.37
  • Dairy $10.91
  • Eggs $2.39

I know we’re missing some receipts- I only see items at one grocery store, we normally shop at two.  I keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer, so this month was boring, but completely do-able.  I doubt my family noticed much difference beyond being low on milk more often than not, since I only went to the grocery store a few times that month.

I’m hesitant to post this, but I have a point: feeding a family well does not need to be expensive.  We have two adults with good appetites, and three little kids.  I know this would look different if we had teens, but a friend goaded me into action today.  She posted on Facebook begging for advice on how to lower her food bill for her family of three (Mom, Dad, and a baby.)  She spends between $1,000 and $1,500 a month on “natural and organic food.”  I have no idea what she’s buying or eating, but thought that perhaps I could offer a counter point.

The Grocery Tally Project

Periodically, I go OCD on my groceries.  Totally true.  I haven’t done it for a few years, but it seems like now is a great time to get a better handle on what we’re eating and buying.  Some of us (ahem) could stand to lose a few pounds, and we all need to eat a bit healthier.

I can post the template if anyone is interested, but I set up a simple workbook in Excel- the first tab has 6 columns:

  1. Month
  2. Store
  3. Item
  4. Amount of item purchased
  5. Purchase Price
  6. Category

The second tab has a quick pivot table that sums up my items- a row for each month, a column for each category, with a running total for each month at the end of the rows.  The intersecting cells tell me how much I spent on any one category in any given month.

One, this helps me see trends (oops, we spent how much on cookies?)

Two, this helps me do a cost analysis- we recently quit ordering from the local produce co-op.  I can see how much more I spend shopping at the store than ordering baskets from them.

Three, this will help me in garden planning- If I see that we ate 10 pounds of carrots in January, I know it’s worth my time to fill empty garden boxes with carrot seeds in the Fall, to use them in the Winter.

Four, this becomes my go-to price book for cost comparision between stores- if Fred Meyer has a sale on oranges, and I’ve purchased them at Costco in the past, I can see how the sale price stacks up against the bulk wholesaler’s regular price and decide if it’s worth my kitchen space to stock up now during the sale.

At the end of each month I’ll be posting my totals here.  We eat well, and plentifully, but the food is rather plain and homespun.  I cook most of our food myself.  I’m not all that concerned with buying organic produce, but I do try and purchase in season and local.  We eat very little meat.

Looking

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We found mini microscopes on Amazon for about $3- Just opened up a whole new world for Ernie. Who knew leaves could be so amazing and textured and covered in teensy bugs?

Where I Plant

winter garden state

 

This is what my garden looks like right now, and this is basically where everything will be.

In the top right corner are four garden boxes, each roughly 4 feet x 8 feet.

Along the top of the retaining wall is a border bed- by the stump is (what’s left of) my strawberry patch, after digging up  to replace a broken water pipe.  The bed is 2-3 feet deep.

Behind the stump is another planting area- the dirt is pretty bad down towards the street, but this is where the blueberries are.  Raspberries will be transplanted, along with permanent trellising, this month.

Along the side of the driveway is another planting strip- it’s about three feet deep, and about 15 feet long.  This is the only portion of our property that gets sun, so we made our front yard into the garden space.  We are VERY lucky to have understanding neighbors, who view all this as an improvement over the neglected state of the yard before we moved here 4 years ago.  Very lucky.

Our permanent fruits right now are the fig tree, in the lawn; plum tree, in the back yard; blueberry bushes; strawberry plants; raspberry canes; thornless blackberry canes.  I planted 6 asparagus crown last  year along the wall, but they didn’t make a good showing- it’s a wait and see game right now to see if they’ll survive.

My favorite resources for shoe-horning plants into tight places are here, but I’ll be adding these to the “gardening resources” tab at the top of the page.

The trick to getting a lot out of a little space is to not think in monoculture rows.  Plant root crops with leafy crops, tuck starts in when you free up a spot, sprinkle lettuce seeds wherever the ground is bare, plant beneficials together like spinach that will shade heat-averse strawberries.  Also, think about growing up- squash, melons, peas, beans can all be trellised quite happily.  Container gardening is a great space extender- grow potatoes in old garbage cans or coffee sacks, use pots for herbs that like to run away, that kind of thing.  If you have space, start seeds in trays in a sunny window or greenhouse, so that when space frees up in the garden you can put them in the ground with a head start.

Garden Book

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I started a garden book today- a running commentary on daily garden activities. One page for each day of the year, used year after year. A quick reference to remind myself that yes, we really waited that long for the tomatillos to ripen. I really did spend all July weeding.

Today I started my tomato nightshades, my cole crops, and my basil in the green house. I know the tomatoes, basil, and tomatillos will all come up when they’re good and ready. I have my doubts about the peppers and cabbage family plants. But, I’ve started them indoors three years in a row, and every year they all die off. So… Let’s live a little and try the greenhouse this time! Today was a pretty cold day, and the greenhouse registered 46, which was a bit warmer than outside. Let’s see if we get some sun and pop those seeds out of their shells!

Vanilla Yogurt, a No-Fail Updated Guide to Making It Yourself

It’s time to update my yogurt recipe.  I’ve found a method that, for me, is completely no-fail!

At it’s most basic, yogurt is a really simple process.

    1. Heat milk to kill pathogens.
    2. Cool milk to NOT kill yogurt cultures
    3. Add yogurt starter and flavor
    4. Keep it warm.

yogurt

The recipe is here.

You’ll need:

  • 1 large pot
  • 2 clean mason quart jars with screw on lids (use wide mouth!  save your sanity trying to get that last scoop out!)
  • candy thermometer (needs to show between 100 and 185 degrees Farenheit)
  • small cooler that will hold the two jars
  • half gallon whole milk
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 8 ounces store bought yogurt

About the store bought yogurt: Yes, you can save yogurt from one batch to use in the next.  I never remember to do that, and it’s about fifty cents to pick up a little tub when I buy my milk.  Totally worth it for me.

Second, every recipe I’ve ever seen says that you need to use plain yogurt.  Lies.  I’m making vanilla yogurt, and I can use vanilla yogurt as my starter!  Just keep in mind that the store bought, flavored, yogurts are chock full of sugar and thickeners…those things will be in your final product.  Yeah, it’s just a little, but that might matter to you.  (It stopped mattering to me when my grocery store stopped carrying 8 ounce cups of plain yogurt- I didn’t want to buy a tub of starter and mess around with freezing it, then thawing it when I wanted to make yogurt.)  Whatever you get, check the container and make sure it has “live and active cultures.”  I’ve never seen a yogurt that didn’t carry this label- I’m not sure it would even BE yogurt if it didn’t have cultures in it?  But still- you need the bacteria to make new yogurt for you, make sure you’ve got ’em.  If you have a favorite brand of yogurt, try using it for your starter!  Different brands might use different cultures, and perhaps you have a preference for one over the other?  I’ve used Dannon, Tillamook, Brown Cow, Kroger…all made nice yogurts.

To start, get your milk and yogurt out of the fridge.  Leave the yogurt out to warm up, dump the milk into a big pot over low heat.  Stir it occasionally, and let it get about 185 degrees- you’ll see a skin forming on top, and you’ll see a good amount of bubbles around the edges.  This temperature will kill any bad bacteria in the milk.  (Yes, it’s a fresh carton of milk, yes it should be totally safe.  But do it anyway!)

Take the milk off the heat, and let it cool down so it won’t kill the good bacteria in your yogurt starter- you want it below 120, and 105-115 is perfect.

Stir in your vanilla, yogurt starter, and sugar.  A 1/4 cup of sugar will make a tart yogurt.  A 1/2 cup of sugar will make something my kids beg for.  And it’s still way less sugar than store bought!  I once compared the sugar in Jell-O pudding to my daughter’s favorite vanilla yogurt from the store- they.were.the.same.  (I let her eat pudding for breakfast that day.)  A half cup of sugar is 8 Tbsp, which is mixed into 8 cups of milk.  So that’s a half Tablespoon for every half cup serving of yogurt (1 and 1/2 teaspoons.)  It’s sweet, yes.  Probably treat level, but if you’re trying to show your kids that home made is yummy just like store bought…ease them into it.  You can use less next time!

The faster your yogurt sets up, the sweeter the final product will be as well.

So, let’s get it set up.  Once your milk has cooled, you stir in the sugar and vanilla and yogurt starter.  Don’t beat it silly, it will get frothy.  But do try and work the lumps of yogurt starter into the mixture, so that they can do their job.  Pour  your mixture into two very clean quarter mason jars, and screw on two very clean lids.  I find plastic lids in my canning section at the grocery store- if you don’t have a stash, get some!  (You’ll have about a half cup of the milk mixture left over- drink it while the kids aren’t looking, it’s delicious!)

Put your sealed mason jars into a small “igloo” cooler, and fill the cooler with hot tap water.  Shut the lid and walk away!  My yogurt is generally done in a few hours, perhaps 4?  Totally depends on how warm the house is, and how warm it stays in that cooler, and how warm the milk mixture was when you poured it in.  You can check it after 4 hours by picking up a jar and tilting it a bit- if it looks solid enough, it’s done!  But, if you mess around with the jars while they’re still setting up, they won’t set up properly.  When it’s done, stick it in the fridge!

Now, if you want greek yogurt, that’s easy.  Take your finished yogurt and dump it into a tea towel-lined colander over a bowl and let it drain in the fridge till it’s as thick as you like it.  If you leave it a really long time, you’ll get something that looks like cream cheese.  It’s delicious on french toast, but you’ve been warned!  Save the whey that drains out for your bread baking, or soaking grains in.  I haven’t messed around with making ricotta with it, I wonder if it would work?  It would be sweet, though, haha.

One word about your finished yogurt- it will begin to separate, and the whey will seep out.  It looks weird, it’s totally normal- you didn’t add gelatin or thickeners like the companies do.  Drain it off.  Also, if you stir your yogurt, it will get runny and won’t set back up again.  Again, no thickeners.  So serve it up in great big scoops, and enjoy!