Thursday, November 3, 2016

Menu Planning and Bulk Shopping

Have you ever gone grocery shopping with 3 kids 4 and under? If you haven't, I'll let you in on a little secret, grocery stores are about 25 degrees hotter when you have small children with you. I don't know how they keep the perishable food cold. Maybe it's just me, but even when everybody is behaving, it's a stressful situation. I'm lucky. For the most part, my kids are pretty well behaved in the grocery store. But, for whatever reason, it always feels like we're a walking time bomb. At any moment somebody could completely lose their you-know-what and then I'm just stuck there with a cart full of food. So yeah. Not my most favorite activity.

I do get myself treats though. Coffee, Noosa (you haven't tried Noosa?! Get you a Noosa yogurt ASAP my friend!), maybe a nice bar of chocolate. So, not all bad.

I have always made weekly menus and grocery shopped once a week. I did go through a phase when we were living in North Carolina were I would do a bigger grocery shop every other week, with a smaller one on the in between weeks, but I've always been a once a week shopper. For a while now though, I've been wanting to give monthly shopping a try. Besides the fact that I end up feeling stressed, grocery shopping also takes a huge chunk out of our day. A huge chunk taken out once every week gets frustrating. And once we moved, my favorite grocery store went from being 5 minutes away to 40 minutes away. I did try out a couple other grocery stores, but I just couldn't quit my old favorite (Wegman's!!) Monthly grocery shopping was making more and more sense. So I gave it a try.

I. Love. It. Love. So much love. And every time I've posted anything about it on any form of social media, everybody has lots of questions. So hopefully here are some answers.

First part of monthly grocery shopping (ok so I actually do 3-3.5 weeks at a time) is making a monthly menu. This SOUNDS very daunting, but I promise you it's not. Theme days make it a lot easier. If I cook a full dinner every night, we end up tossing so much food. So Saturdays are always a leftover night, and Fridays are a takeout/homemade pizza/eggs/leftovers/fend for yourself night. So there's a good bit of the month planned. Wednesday nights the kids and I leave around 5:30 and aren't home until after bedtime, so every Wednesday I plan for an easy crockpot meal or soup and sandwiches. Tuesdays Kate has ballet until 6:00, so on Tuesdays I plan meals that can be made during naptime and either kept warm in the crockpot while we're gone, or heated up easily when we get home. Bigger, "nice" dinners on Sundays since I have more time and to restock our leftovers for the week (James takes leftovers to work for lunch). So all that's left are the Mondays and Thursdays! Themes! You could do Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Casserole Wednesday, Crockpot Thursday, Pizza Friday, whatever themes you want. Promise it makes monthly menu planning so much easier!

I get a LOT of my recipes from Pinterest, but also from 100 Days of Real Food. Seriously amazing blog and fantastic cookbook.

I print blank calendar pages to fill in with meals and keep them in my home management binder. They could be easily kept in a folder or written out in a notebook instead of a calendar page.

I do try to plan meals that have like ingredients to save money. Things that I'll buy in bulk to use for multiple recipes include:
chicken broth
canned tomatoes
frozen vegetables
shredded cheese
meat (of course)

Wegmans sells bulk packs of chicken breasts, ground turkey, and ground beef so the majority of our dinners come from that. I like Wegmans' quality and prices on their bulk items, but you can also use a membership at a store like Costco or Sam's Club.  I portion out the meat when I get home (or at least within a day or 2 of shopping), wrap tightly in plastic and foil, and keep in labelled freezer bags. I've found that the combo of plastic and foil keeps the freezer burn away the best. Someday maybe I'll have a vacuum sealer...

When my menu is finished, I make my grocery list. I write it out by aisle which makes shopping a million times easier and FASTER. I first write out everything needed for the recipes I have planned out for dinners. I obviously can't buy fresh produce for the whole 3-4 weeks, but pretty much everything else I can. After I'm sure I have all the ingredients for the dinners, I fill in what we need for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. I don't plan those for each day, but I do keep a running list of things we normally eat. I usually stick with snacks that I can buy in large portions or snacks that I can make homemade (granola is one). A big bag of pretzels, another of animal crackers, and a few boxes of cereal bars (making these homemade is another goal) will last us through the month. After that I go through my pantry and check my staples like flour, sugar, coffee, etc.

A note on pantry staples. We are very lucky to live right in Amish country and so we are never far from an Amish bulk foods store. They have all your dry goods, including spices, sold in bulk for super low prices. I try to go every other to every 3 months to stock the pantry. The only pantry staple I consistently buy at Wegmans and not the bulk food store is my white whole wheat flour. The bulk food store doesn't carry it and Wegmans has it for the lowest price I've found. I go through it very quickly, (and I'm about to go through it even quicker since I've made it a goal to start making most of our bread homemade), so a low price is very important to me.

 A bulk food store and farm stand haul from this past summer!

The last portion of my list includes things like plastic wrap, baggies, etc. I try not to get any cleaning supplies or toiletries during my big grocery trip.

The day I go, my kids are bribed heavily prepped beforehand. They eat something in the car on the way there because hungry kids are obnoxious kids and Kate (who sits in the cart) is allowed to bring a little toy in. Henry gets wrapped.

Getting so much food all at once does make our trip a little longer, but since I take the time to organize my list by aisle it's really not too bad. I do sometimes go before the kids have Awana at church, and I end up running through the store in order to finish in time, but it's worth  it since we're out that way anyway. Saves gas.

If I've gone shopping before Awana, I pack the cold stuff away into coolers in my trunk. Regardless of when we go shopping, I only put the cold stuff away when I get home. I just cannot face getting it all away at once. Cold stuff goes away and shelf stable stuff gets all set out on our island to be put away later. I've also been known to put away the cold stuff, leave the shelf stable stuff in the bags during the kids naps so I can unwind, and then put it away later while I'm making dinner.

Once I'm actually ready to get it put away, I take everything that can be taken out of boxes, out of boxes. I have all sorts of jars and bins that I keep things in. When you buy so much in bulk, it can get really hard to organize. Emptying boxes into jars and/or bins helps keep things in order. Keeps it all fresh too!

So what about produce? Milk? Eggs? That stuff I do have to buy weekly. But during the spring, summer, and early fall I can get all of my produce at farm stands and our town's grower's market. In the spring I run to the closest store for a quick trip. Half an hour tops. Next summer and fall we'll hopefully be eating a lot of produce we grew ourselves. Couldn't manage to do that this year since we moved in July.

I don't know if this post has made monthly menu planning and bulk shopping seem any less complicated and daunting, but I promise it really isn't. It does take more thought and planning, but it is just so worth it! Besides saving me a lot of time and stress, it's been saving us quite a lot of money! And who doesn't want to save money right? ;)

I'm sure all of this will grow and change as time goes on. I'm hoping to start making a lot more of our snacks from scratch (I know we can do better than the boxes of cereal bars), as well as our bread, and if we can manage a good garden next year that will make a big difference as well. Stay tuned for how all of that goes!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Meal Prep..... Friday?

So meal prepping. I've done it a lot with dinners. Especially when I'm pregnant. I like to make a ton of meals and stick them in the freezer so when the baby comes I don't have to cook. When I was marathon training I did it a little bit for lunches because most of the time I was too exhausted to make much of a lunch. I never really got too into it though, although I always said I wanted to. I scroll through the #mealprepmonday hashtag on Instagram all the time. Food all neatly portioned out and organized into colorful containers might be my love language...

With Henry getting older (and mobile!), James working out of town, a move coming up, and just you know... life in general it has been becoming more and more apparent that prepping meals and snacks is something I need to be doing. I have been eating WAY more microwaved quesadillas lately than I care to admit.

So I did it! I made several portioned lunches/dinners for myself (plus leftovers for the kids), various pre made breakfast items, and some snacks. Before doing it I had 2 main fears. That it would be expensive and that the prep work would take way too long and be way too frustrating with the kids underfoot. My fears were (mostly) unfounded (it was rather frustrating at times, but let's be honest, most things are right now). Listing what I made (with links to recipes) for anybody interested in trying this out themselves, and also for future reference for myself! 

I stayed pretty basic for now. When I do it again I might branch out a little bit. We'll see. 

My biggest motivator was picking up these cute little containers on sale at Wegmans. I can't leave such adorable little things empty. They're Rubbermaid Take Alongs, but different colors than I've seen before. Can't find them anywhere online, so no link... Sorry!

What I bought:
Family size pack of chicken breasts
Red peppers
Green peppers
Yellow squash
Sweet potatoes
Plain Greek yogurt
Frozen fruit

What I had (most of these pantry staples I buy in bulk when my mom and I visit an Amish bulk food store once a month or so):
Raw almonds
Raw cashews
Raw sunflower seeds
Raw pumpkin seeds
Brown rice 

What I made:
Scrambled egg muffins 
Granola (I used coconut oil instead of butter. And also, do yourself a favor and check out this lady's entire blog and her book too. Such great stuff!)
Hard boiled eggs
Chopped raw veggies 
Yogurt parfaits
Cottage cheese & fruit
Shredded chicken 
Baked chicken
Roasted vegetables
Stir fried vegetables 
Roasted sweet potatoes
Baked sweet potato

What I did:

I honestly could have done all of this is just 1 day, but it took 2 days because I still went to the gym, ran errands, took breaks to play, watched a show with the kids, etc. 

I started with prep. I put half the pack of chicken into the crockpot, then cut up the other half, sliced all the veggies (I cut everything into long sticks so it would all work for Henry too), and mixed up the oatmeal muffins and egg cups. 

got the idea for the egg cups from a recipe on Pinterest, but didn't end up following it at all so it isn't linked. I just scrambled 12 eggs with a little milk in my spouted mixing bowl and then poured them into paper lined muffin tins. Dropped chopped veggies (peppers, tomatoes, baby spinach) and a little spring of cheese in and baked on 350 for about 20 minutes.

They did not come out pretty, but they're good! 

The half of the chicken that I baked I drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with granulated garlic. 

The veggies I roasted (zucchini, yellow squash, sweet potato) I drizzled with olive oil only. Henry will be eating these so I didn't season with any salt like I normally would have. When I eat them I'll probably sorting le a bit of sea salt or maybe some garlic.

The stir fried veggies (broccoli and peppers) I tossed in equal parts low sodium soy sauce and honey before cooking.

I baked one sweet potato and then sliced it into circles. 

The chicken in the crockpot I shredded. Some I seasoned with cumin, chili powder, garlic, and oregano and portioned out for my meals, some I'm leaving out for the kids or for me to add to salads, the rest I'm freezing in 1 cup portions. 

The brown rice I cooked in the oven. SO easy! I boiled 4 cups of water and then poured that over 2 cups of rice in a 9x13 dish. Covered and baked on 400 for an hour. Done. Perfect rice every time. I also portioned some in my meal containers, saved some in the fridge, and froze some in 1 cup portions.

Granola and oatmeal I linked recipes above. I used frozen berries on top of the baked oatmeal rather than the fresh recommended in the actual recipe. 

The yogurt parfaits are plain Greek yogurt with a little honey and a couple sliced strawberries. Then granola in the nifty little layered lid the cool containers I bought have. I used the same containers for cottage cheese and put frozen berries in the layered lid.

And that's it! It really wasn't hard at all and let me tell how AWESOME it was tonight when I wanted to give the kids chicken with rice and veggies for dinner and BAM. There it was. And next to no dinner clean up. WINNING.

 Next time I'll work with more than just chicken. Once we move and James is actually living at home again I'll be able to  make a lot more food, with a lot more variety, without having to worry about it going bad before it can get eaten (plus we'll have a much bigger fridge!). I'm already brainstorming other ideas.

If this works throughout this upcoming week, I'd really like to get in the habit of doing this regularly. I can already tell it's going to save me so much time this week! Not to mention I know I'm going to feel so much better (and maybe actually be able to see the results of my working out... what a concept....)  eating plenty of healthy food and not just melting a bunch of cheese onto a tortilla (in the microwave) at 9 o'clock at night and calling it dinner... 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Getting My Fix

Stitch Fix. A company that handpicks clothing and accessories for you and sends them to your door. Subscription box style.

For a couple years now I've been hearing about this Stitch Fix thing, but I always had plenty of excuses not to try it. Mostly, "I don't have anywhere to wear nice clothes." and, "I can't justify spending money on myself." My jeans and sweaters purchased when I was 18 are getting WAY old and tired by now, and I'm recognizing the benefits of not wearing workout clothes 100% of the time. (Maybe just 80%...) Plus, I'm less than 2 years from turning 30 now and it might be time to start dressing like a grown up. Not wanting to drag 3 kids around to several stores and try to focus on decision making and fitting room mirrors (ugh) over a million questions about dinosaurs and where we left that green car that one time, a box of clothes sent to my door was extremely appealing. So I got myself signed up and schedule my first fix.

My box arrived last night. I. Loved. It. I kept everything. It was like Christmas morning all over again. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I know people have questions about what Stitch Fix is and how it really works. So let's start there before hearing my clothing reviews. 

So. Like I said before, Stitch Fix is a company that has stylists hand pick clothing for you and sends it to your door. You can schedule a box (each one contains 5 pieces) to be delivered twice a month, every month, every 3 months, or you can just schedule a one time delivery (which is what I did.)

When you sign up, you're asked to fill out a style profile. Basic questions like your pant/dress size, if you typically buy small/med/large in shirts, if you work outside the home and what the dress code is, and general questions about body shape (Are you curvy on top or bottom? Do you have especially long legs/torso/arms?). Then there's questions about how you typically like to dress. A list of body parts (shoulders/back/legs/cleavage) and whether you'd rather flaunt them or keep them covered, if you prefer pants to skirts, whether or not you like to wear accessories, or if there's any colors you avoid. They provide pictures of several different outfits for you to rank (which is super fun). There's also a place for comments or to ask for specific pieces (if you have a formal event, like a wedding, coming up that you'd like something for they can do that for you!) and a place to provide links to social media accounts like Pinterest. You can create a fashion board on Pinterest and pin photos of outfits that you really like and your stylist will be able to view those. You can even pin pictures of shoes and accessories that you already have for matching purposes. When your profile is filled out you choose the price point you want to stay in and schedule your fix(es). At that time you're charged a $20 stylist fee. If you choose to keep any clothing from your box, that $20 is credited to the cost of them.

When your box comes (it's fast!) there's a prepaid envelope to send back anything you don't want (can you say EASY?!) and little cards for each piece with outfit ideas. You check out online you're able to leave feedback for everything in your box, whether you're keeping it or not. It's helpful to leave a lot of feedback for the items you send back so that your next fix will be even more personalized to you. If you chose to keep all 5 pieces they offer a 25% discount! I didn't realize that til I got my box and it was a pleasant surprise!

Ok so now the fun part! My clothes! For reference, here's my normal wardrobe:

And, to be clear here, I'm not totally turning my back on the yoga pants. I love them way too much for that ;) 

In my style profile, I asked for basic items that were easy to mix and match. I mentioned that I'm a mom of 3 small children so I need casual and comfy, but that I wanted to dress it up a bit. My stylist (Ali!) was right on with what she sent.

I selected the "as cheap as possible" option and everything averaged out to about $50 each (shirts and necklace less, dress and jeans a little more). It's more than I would normally spend on myself, but it feels very worth it to have some nice, well made clothes to mix and match with some of my cheaper stuff. 

In my box I got jeans ("a combination of jeans and leggings without being 'jeggings'"), a striped shirt, a cardigan, a black dress, and a necklace. At first glance, I thought I'd send the necklace back. I don't wear necklaces very much (ever) because of little hands, BUT the discount for keeping all 5 items was way worth keeping the necklace. And I want to step out of my comfort zone a little right? 

My outfit cards! 

When I saw the cards, before even pulling out the actual clothes, I said to James, "Oh I won't keep the jeans. I have enough jeans." Then I put them on.

Holy. Comfort.

I have never in my life worn pants that were THAT comfortable. They're high waisted (bye muffin top!) without being "mom jeans" and have just enough stretch.

I was a little nervous that the shirt and cardigan would look frumpy since they were pretty loose, but I liked the fit a lot more than I thought and they were crazy comfy.

The dress I love because who doesn't love an LBD? This one is so perfect for me because it can easily be dressed up with heels or down with leggings and boots. It looks great with the cardigan I got too! 

The necklace I almost didn't keep totally grew on me too! 

So I am a Stitch Fix FAN! I will definitely be scheduling a box again. At least one for summer, if not sooner! 

Another fun bonus? When you're signed up, you're given a referral link to share with friends. Anytime a friend signs up for Stitch Fix through your link, you receive a $25 credit to your account once their first fix arrives! Which is pretty awesome.

So, obviously, I'm going to share my referral link ;)

If you're on the fence about doing this for yourself, hop off that fence and let somebody else dress you. It's super fun ;)