Posts Tagged ‘frugal’

Organize It: Meal Planning Tips

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Eating out is bad for your wallet and your waistline, but we succumb to the temptation on a regular basis because we can’t figure out how to incorporate cooking into our busy schedules. In addition to picking out meals and shopping, the prospect of making a meal when we get home from an exhausting day at work usually has us waving the white flag in defeat, and speed-dialing our local pizza place for delivery.

How do you get out of this cycle of fast food and delivery every night? The key is developing a meal plan routine.

FINAL_JB_MealPlanningTips_032714_1

Each Sunday morning, I sit down with a cup of coffee and put together a meal plan for the week. I then plot out my grocery list and hit the store (keep an eye out for a future post with tips on efficiently navigating the grocery store).

Step 1: Recipe Research
The first step is to decide what you are going to cook for the week. This can be an overwhelming task, so I have three sites I would recommend to help you in getting started.

Pinterest: Like most of us, I am on Pinterest daily, so I pin recipes as I see them, and then use my boards as a one-stop shop for planning my week.

Sweet Peas & Pumpkins: This Jamie Oliver Food Revolution award-winning blog is written by self-proclaimed “foodie mom” Sweet Pea Chef. She tasks herself with designing healthy meals that her kids will actually eat. One of my favorite recipes is her Mexican BBQ Chicken. I marinade sliced chicken breast, along with peppers and onions, and use it for tacos. I also love her Sesame Ginger Chicken Burgers.

Skinnytaste: Skinnytaste is another site I visit daily, and most of our meals come from here. Gina creates recipes that are delicious and low-calorie, and she lists all the nutritional information on her site (including Weight Watchers Points!). Our favorites include her Stuffed Buffalo Chicken Breasts, Zucchini Tots and Turkey Chili Taco Soup.

Tips on picking your meals:

* Whenever possible, try to pick at least one meal that you can have for two nights. This makes it so that one night during the week, you just have to reheat your meal instead of starting from scratch.
* If the recipe makes more servings than you need (say it’s six servings and you are a family of two), cut the recipe in half, or use the leftovers for lunches, or freeze them for future meals.
* Share ingredients between recipes. Did you find a recipe that uses a 1/2 pound of chicken, but you are buying a pound? Find another recipe that you can use chicken in so that you reduce food waste.
* Don’t pick complicated meals. I usually do a quick read-through on any recipe before I add it to my meal list to make sure that it’s not something that needs to simmer for 3 hours, or something that has dozens of steps in order to complete. The more complicated it is, the higher your chances are of giving up and getting take out.
* Want to be adventurous? Check out Rachael’s post on how you can source locally grown produce inexpensively. Most of these local vendors will even provide recipes on how you can use your produce. It’s a great way to save money, and be more inventive with your cooking.

Step 2: Schedule Meals
Once you decide what your meals are going to be by day, either take a piece of paper and write them out, or do what I do and compose an e-mail to yourself. In the e-mail, I usually list out each day, what we are having, and below that I put a hyperlink to the recipe, for easy access. I title the e-mail “Recipes for the week of (Date Here)” that way it’s easy to find in my Inbox.

FINAL_JB_MealPlanningTips_032714_2

It is a good idea to take inventory of any produce or perishables you have before you make your schedule for the week, and use items that are close to expiration first. For example, if you have a zucchini on hand that’s starting to get a little soft, you can schedule your Skinnytaste Zucchini Tots for earlier in the week.

Step 3: Make a Grocery List
Finally, you have to make your grocery list. To do this, I go through each recipe, write the ingredients on my grocery list, and then go into the kitchen and cross off any item I already have. When I don’t do this, I usually end up buying something I already have, which is why I have three tubs of white pepper.

The more you practice your routine, the better you will get, and the easier it will be to shop each week. I can tell you from experience that if you have the ingredients at home, you are more likely to stick to your meal plan.

Do you have any tips on creating your own meal plan? What recipe sites are your favorite and why? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

Eat More Veggies: Smart Shopping

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote a post highlighting the amount of food – especially produce – that we waste, despite both good intentions and the fact that we are healthier when we eat more plant-based foods. In Monday’s post, Eat More Veggies: Waste Not Want Not, I shared my top tips for reducing waste: First In First Out, Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff and Shop Smart. Today is all about how to put the Shop Smart part into action.

Shopping Smart means looking beyond the traditional grocery store for ways to buy fresh, healthy food. The grocery store is not a bad option and you can score good deals if you shop the sales, but it is important to have some alternatives. More Choices = More Savings. My favorite ways to save on produce are farmer’s markets, food rescue and co-op buying. To learn more about the treasures you might find at the farmer’s market, check out my post, The Downtown Phoenix Farmer’s Market.

FINAL_RR_EatMoreVeggiesPart2_03132014_1

Food Rescue: Market on the Move
There are groups in some communities that rescue surplus produce that would otherwise get wasted and provide that produce at a low cost to families. In Phoenix and Tucson, Market on the Move is a weekly event where surplus produce from farming communities is trucked into the city. Generally there are 8-12 varieties of produce and with a $10 donation participants can take all the food they want. That’s right – there’s no limit. Some families fill reusable shopping bags and others come with wagons or rolling coolers. The idea is that you take what you can use and a little extra to share with friends and neighbors because the food would have otherwise been wasted.

The first time I participated in Market on the Move, I was a little weirded out. I wasn’t sure if the program was more like a food bank than a co-op and I didn’t want to take food that was meant for people with fewer resources than I have. On top of that, I wasn’t sure about “rescued” food. Sounds kind of dubious, right? Was it going to be all rotten or go bad in a day? Was it going to be oddball stuff nobody would want?

I decided to see for myself and I was pleasantly surprised. One Saturday morning I showed up at a church near my home to find a huge line of (really friendly) people. I was pretty far back so I had about 40 minutes to wait and used the time to get to know my “line neighbors.” There were people from all walks of life and they had various reasons for participating. Some of the folks I chatted with were looking to add healthy veggies to their diets, some were participating because it stretched their food budget, and others were excited to participate in a program that prevents waste. My concern that I was taking food from others who might need it more was unfounded because there is more than enough to go around and the process only works if there are enough participants contributing. Another important thing is to note is that Market on the Move is not year-round. The service is suspended during the hottest months of summer so it’s always a good idea to double check the website before you head out.

So, what do you get? Most of the food is conventionally grown, but I have seen a few organics mixed it. The selection varies every week and you never know until you arrive and read the whiteboard, but last time I went there were eggplants, red bell peppers, tomatoes, four varieties of squash, green beans and cucumbers. I took some of everything except eggplant (yuck!). I used some food right away because grilled squash is a big hit at my house. I made a few loaves of zucchini quickbread which were devoured in a flash. Homemade tomato sauce? You can bet your baked ziti I made a batch! Cucumber sandwich with dill and cream cheese? Don’t mind if I do. After the first wave of my cooking frenzy quieted, I sliced and shredded portions for the freezer so I have quick side dishes for future dinners and ingredients ready for more quickbread. My daughter’s day care provider was thrilled to have a bounty of grape tomatoes for the kiddos and my coworkers were not shy about taking the rest. Not a single veg was wasted and many, many mouths were fed with a single $10 bill. Granted, I had to put in some effort and it’s not something I have time for every weekend, but it made a big difference and it was well worth my investment.

FINAL_RR_EatMoreVeggiesPart2_03132014_2

Food Co-Op: Bountiful Baskets
I remember back in 2008 when a colleague at work told me about her friend who got a big laundry basket full of fresh produce from Bountiful Baskets for only fifteen dollars. I remember thinking she was probably messing with me or there had to be some kind of a catch. We gathered around the website reading every detail and trying to figure out how to do it and whether there were strings attached. It sounded too good to be true. In the end we decided to gamble the fifteen bucks and give it a try. Fortunately for us it was NOT a scam and I was so pleasantly surprised that I began participating every other week. For a while, I even volunteered and helped to establish a new pick-up site in a local park. Now, I’m very fortunate to work for a company that participates in Bountiful Baskets Corporate Sites so my veggies and fruits get delivered right to work every other Thursday.

Bountiful Baskets is a food co-op, which means that people from all over the community contribute money online to the bulk-purchase of hundreds of pallets of food direct from the distributor. The organizers work with the produce house to get the best deals possible and arrange for trucks to deliver the produce to local parks, churches or other pre-designated meeting places. From there, neighborhood volunteers work together to distribute the produce into equal shares. Volunteer Site Coordinators then check participants off of the list as they come to pick up their shares of the bulk purchase. Over the years, the process has become much smoother. In the past, food always had to be distributed into baskets onsite but now some sites enjoy pre-packed boxes. The organization has grown significantly, too. There used to only be sites in Maricopa County, AZ but now several states have Bountiful Baskets.

The online contribution form has the choice of conventionally grown produce for $15 or a slightly smaller box of organically grown fruits and vegetables for $25. Participants can add extras like breads, tortillas, granola, cookies or specialty packs of extra veggies for a small additional fee.

My experience with Bountiful Baskets has always been more good than bad. I’ve found mixed reviews online and generally those fall into two groups: people who don’t like not being able to pick out their own veggies and concerns about the quality of the food. I see not being able to choose my own veggies as an adventure and I like that it pushes me to try new stuff or share something I don’t want with others (for example, eggplant lovers) who will use it. Occasionally I’ll get a box that’s kind of boring to me, but I feel like more often than not I get a good variety. For Arizonans, the things you find in your basket usually correspond pretty closely to what’s on the front of the Sprouts sale flyer. As for the quality complaints, sometimes I get a few items that are over or underripe but I just use them in the order they’re going to ripen and I chalk it up to being a natural part of the co-operative buying thing.

What’s your experience with alternative food buying? Have you ever participated in a co-op or food rescue operation? Do you think you might like to try it? Continue the conversation in the comments below. We always love to hear what you think!

Eat More Veggies: Waste Not, Want Not

Monday, March 10th, 2014

FINAL_RR_EatMoreVeggiesPart1_03102014_1.jpg

Most people know there are health benefits to be gained from eating more fruits and veggies, but sometimes life gets in the way – we don’t feel like shopping, we’re too tired to cook after work or, for millions of Americans, tight household budgets mean a struggle to afford healthy food. How we feel, how we look, and most importantly, how well our bodies work depends on the kind of fuel we consume. Even though we know we should eat more plant-based food, there are a great many factors that go into the decisions we make about food each day. Sometimes we have noble intentions but lack follow-through. It happens to everyone – you stock up on Sunday for a week of healthy eating but you decide to have leftovers Monday night, the kids beg for pizza Tuesday night, Wednesday you work late and eat Cheerios for dinner, so by Thursday the crisper drawer is still chock-full. Except now there’s nothing “crisp” about the contents. The drawer in your fridge has become the place where produce goes to die.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans threw more than 36 million tons of food into landfills in 2011. In fact, food waste has increased dramatically over the last three decades and that disturbing trend isn’t slowing. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise and we can expect another 2.5% – 3.5% price increase in 2014 according to the US Department of Agriculture.

We have tremendous power to improve the way we eat, reduce the amount of food we waste, and save a significant portion of our grocery budget with a small investment of time and energy. These are my top tips for making the most of the food you buy:

FIFO – First In, First Out
When you bring home groceries, be sure to put them away so that you see the oldest stuff first. This way you rotate your stock and perfectly good food doesn’t language on your pantry shelf or in your crisper drawer. For many families it helps to put ripe or close-dated food at the front and center of the fridge so it’s easy to grab and doesn’t get wasted.

Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff
Sometimes I don’t follow my own FIFO advice and I’ll find a bit of something that’s been hanging around beyond its “Sell By” date. I used to automatically hit the trash can with that food, but now I take a moment and sniff then taste first. Dates on products can mean lots of things: “sell by”, “use by”, “expires”, “freshness guaranteed by”, or even “we have to put a date on this package but it doesn’t mean anything but here’s our best guess”. Much of the food we buy is safe beyond the package date. Of course, I am not advocating eating rotten food, but am saying to use common sense and trust yourself. If the food smells OK, looks OK and you’re comfortable doing so, give it a taste and you may be pleasantly surprised. When in doubt, throw it out.

Shop Smart
There are several smart ways to get more fresh, high-quality food at affordable prices if you search a bit. I started with a Google search “find cheap veggies in Phoenix” and sure enough, most of my favorite spots were listed in the results. You can tailor the search to your community and find similar results. Nationwide there are some good leads on LocalHarvest.org, but they’re not always the most up-to-date so you’ll want to do some additional recon before heading out to a market listed there. Fellow Arizonans, be sure to check out FillYourPlate.org, and ArizonaFarmersMarkets.com for even more options.

Later this week I will share some ways to shop smart to get more high-quality fruits and veggies without blowing your food budget. I look forward to hearing your ideas, too. Do you have any clever tips for reducing food waste? Ideas for what to do with leftover veggies? Delectable veggie recipes or suggestions for meatless meals? Keep the conversation going by commenting below!

Birthday Freebie Scavenger Hunt

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

FINAL_RR_BirthdayFreebies_02114_1

I love bargains. It is so fun to find a great deal and know you got the best price possible. I credit this love, at least in part, to my Aunt Cathy who is the ultimate shopper. She finds amazing deals at pennies on the dollar. We love to play “Guess The Price”, which is our made-up game where one displays an item purchased at a discount and the other tries to guess the price. The better the bargain, the more we squeal and applaud. I’ve seen her pay as little as 2% of the original value. Whenever I find a great deal, I like to call her to get her bargain shopper seal of approval. If Aunt Cathy is impressed by a buy, I know I truly scored.

My favorite day for bargains is my birthday. Every year I go on a little scavenger hunt to find all the birthday freebies I can. It requires some advance planning and a little strategy but if you are willing to do a few things in advance you can score some sweet freebies for your birthday too.

* Step 1: Create a “junk” email account. I use my Yahoo mail for this because you can set up filters and the search feature works pretty well.
* Step 2: Go to your favorite retailers’ websites and see if there’s an e-club, newsletter or mailing list you can join. Hit up sites like freebirthdaystuff.com to learn about more deals and sign up for your e-mail coupons before your birthday.
* Step 3: Create filters in your email account so that all emails from retailers go into a sub-folder. This way you can check periodically to see what deals are out there but your inbox won’t be overrun with spam.
* Step 4: A week before your birthday (but after the 1st of your birthday month) search your Retailers folder for your birthday offers. Often you’ll have to print out a coupon to redeem an offer.
* Step 5: Strategize your plan of attack. Some offers have to be used on your birthday. Other offers don’t expire for a week or two. Once I have everything printed out, I like to sort by expiration date and value. Free product trumps free food. No strings attached deals beat buy-one-get-one coupons.

FINAL_RR_BirthdayFreebies_021114_2

Here’s a little glimpse at the offers I received this year. I haven’t redeemed all of them yet and I will probably skip a few for the sake of healthy nutrition, but it’s nice to have options. And free breakfast.

* Denny’s – Free Grand Slam (Birthday Only, no pre-registration required)
* Danny’s Family Car Wash – – Free Car Wash (Birthday Only)
* Jersey Mike’s Subs – – Free sandwich and 22 oz soda (Birthday Only)
* ULTA Beauty – Free CK One mascara, black – $18 value
* World Market – Certificate for $10 off (no minimum purchase)
* First Watch – Free entrée (no purchase necessary)
* IHOP – Free Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity Breakfast (no purchase necessary)
* Cinnabon – Free MochaLatta Chill (no purchase necessary)
* Buca di Beppo – Free Brownie Sundae (no purchase necessary)
* Einstein Bros Bagels – Free Breakfast Sandwich when you buy any drink
* Cold Stone Creamery – Buy-One-Get-One Creation
* Dairy Queen – Buy-One-Get-One Medium Blizzard
* Zoe’s Kitchen – Buy-One-Get-One Entrée
* Sweet Tomatoes – 20% off your entire check
* Payless Shoes – 25% off your purchase, no exclusions

Hopefully my technique helps you find a few bargains of your own for your birthday this year. If you try it, please let us know what sweet deals you scored for your big day.

Upcycled Toys

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Living a more eco-conscious life means looking for opportunities to use what you have more often and buy new stuff less often. Upcycling, or “making stuff” as our grandparents called it, is a great way to use what you might otherwise discard and create a new, better thing from the materials. In my view, to count as a successful upcycle, an item needs to use something that would otherwise be waste and the end product should be different and better/cuter/more useful than the components it is made from.

I scoured Pinterest for cool upcycled toy projects and found mixed results. Some projects were super basic – give your kid a big box and tell her it is a rocket ship. Give her an empty oatmeal canister to use as a drum. That’s cool, but it’s not upcycling. Kids need to play with empty boxes, build forts out of bed sheets, and ward off foes and fiery dragons with nothing more than their courage, a cereal box shield and a wrapping paper-roll-turned-broadsword. Imaginative, unscripted play is vital to the development of a child’s imagination. So, while I 100% support reusing things, for this collection I disqualified pins I don’t see as true upcycles.

FINAL_RR_Upcycled Toys_011514

Sumo Bowling Pins — These little guys, made by Leslie at Pink Stripey Socks rock my world. I’m searching fervently for the little aquapod bottles so I can make a set for my daughter. I realize it is technically cheating to buy a product just to upcycle the packaging but these guys are so cute that I can’t resist. I mean look at them! Can you blame me?

DIY TV Toy — This crafty upcycle has amazing DIY instructions to turn a tissue box into a toy TV with customized “channels” for your kiddo to change or create. Playing with this toy is a great way to switch off the electronics and use imagination instead.

DIY I-Spy Bottle — I saw my first I-Spy bottle about a year ago and I thought it was such fun. It was the kind you buy from the store with the little beads and wee plastic tchotchskies inside. Where was this invention when I was a kid on car trips? This version uses stuff you find around the house and in the dreaded junk drawer. It’s made with found materials and if you buy your rice in bulk, this toy will cost just pennies to make.

Super Hero Bracelets — These power cuffs a la Wonder Woman are made from spent toilet tissue rolls, glitter and Mod Podge. The tutorial is high quality and includes some pro-tips from the creator’s experience. Just last week my two-year-old appeared from her room dressed in a Yo Gabba Gabba tee-shirt paired with her Hello Kitty tutu and Darth Vader mask. My husband was never more proud. This is a child in desperate need of Bracelets of Victory to complete her look.

Recycle Sort Game — This is maybe the easiest to make of all of the toys and games I found. I love it for being a practical, customizable teaching tool. Want your kids to understand what goes in the trash and what goes in the recycle bin? Make a game of it – literally.

Do you have some favorite upcycled toy ideas? How about fond memories of playing with a sweet cardboard box? We got a brand new avocado green dishwasher in ’81 and I probably got 100 hours of fun out of that carton. The Wilderness Girls love hearing your thoughts so please share them in the comments below.

Kitchen Essentials with Chef Jacob: Dried Herbs

Monday, December 16th, 2013

FINAL_JR_driedherbs1.jpg

Over the years working in kitchens I have learned a few things that can be useful to cooks at home too. Having the right kitchen tools is akin to a mechanic having a well-stocked tool box. Sure, a good mechanic can do a lot with a roadside emergency kit, but in the garage, with the tools of the trade, it is a whole other thing. The same goes for chefs.

Dried herbs are one of the most basic tools a chef uses to build flavor in dishes. Dried herbs get a bad rap with some foodies, who swear by using fresh herbs to flavor their favorite recipes. It’s true that fresh herbs can add a wow factor to your meal, but don’t be so quick to rule out your favorite herb’s dried counterpart. In addition to packing a large amount of flavor in a smaller portion, they’re economical, versatile and more accessible than most fresh herbs.

* Economical — Dried herbs are far less expensive than fresh and they last a lot longer. Fresh herbs are great too, but sometimes a little packet of fresh goes for more than $3 for a small package, and the leftovers die in your crisper drawer. That only has to happen one time to make dried a better deal.
* Versatile — Dried herbs hold up well to high heat and heavily acidic foods. If you use fresh herbs at the beginning of a dish that’s going to be sautéed, braised or simmered for a long time, the herbs will break down and can even become bitter. Dried herbs can take the heat and allow flavors to blend as the food cooks.
* Accessible — Dried herbs are always in season. There’s no such thing as not being able to get dried dill for your tatziki sauce in February. Dried herbs give us the opportunity to use the flavorings we want to use whenever we want to use them.

There are a couple of down sides to choosing dried herbs over fresh. The spice aisle has lots of really great things, but you have to buy a whole jar of the spice. If you need just a few bay leaves why should you have to pay for a whole bunch at once? You really want to buy just what you can use. There was a spice rack in Rachael’s grandmother’s kitchen that hung there for about thirty-five years, right above the stove where heat, moisture and time could have their way with the contents. The day it came off the wall for the last time some of those jars still had their original contents inside. Technically it is true that spices last a long time, but I wouldn’t have reached for that spice rack on a schoolyard triple-dog-dare.

How can you save money and avoid a “Mamaw’s spice rack” situation in your kitchen? Buy only what you need and will use, of course. Rachael likes trying new herbs, spices and blends from the bulk food section at the grocery. I’m a huge fan of Tampico spices sold in pouches in the Mexican food aisle. They’re high quality, inexpensive and sold in small enough packages that you can use them up and replace them before they ever have a chance to get old.

There you have it: dried herbs are a useful and important part of your kitchen arsenal. I’ll leave you with a few pro tips for making the most of your dried herbs.

Dried Herbs: Pro Tips

* Store ‘em right – seal ‘em tight! Dried herbs do best in airtight, light proof containers away from the heat of the oven moisture of the cook top.
* Use dried herbs at the start of a meal and fresh herbs to finish & garnish.
* Never dump dried herbs directly from the jar into the pan. Adding dried herbs by hand gives you the opportunity to crush them up to release the flavor and keeps the container away from the steamy pan to protect your herbs from moisture. This also protects from the cooking bloopers that can happen when you forget there’s no shaker-top on the spice jar and accidentally dump 4 tablespoons of herbs into your pan.
* Herbs can be toasted to bring out aromatic oils. To do this, add your herbs to a cold, dry pan and heat to medium while moving and swirling the herbs in the pan. You’ll know it is done when the herbs are fragrant. Important: If you decide to do this, you must watch your herbs like a hawk. No multi-tasking. No goofing off. Herbs can tell if you look away even for a moment and they will burn to spite you.

Do you have ideas for storing and using dried herbs? Maybe you have a favorite spice blend or local spot to get great spices. Continue the conversation by commenting below.

Love Your Library

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library.
The only entrance requirement is interest. — Lady Bird Johnson

When was the last time you went to the public library? Maybe it has been a while.  Maybe you haven’t been since before you heard your last commencement address. If that is the case, it is time to rethink the library.

FINAL_RR_Love Your Library_1

Burton Barr Central Library
Source: Phoenix Public Library, Photo Credit: Bill Timmerman

A couple months back I shared a post on Sustainable Home Economics and one of our lovely readers, Laura M, commented with a tip about baking her own fresh bread daily. She recommended a book with her recipe and I was immediately intrigued so I popped on over to phoenixpubliclibrary.org where I learned that an available copy was on the shelf at a branch near my office. I picked it up over my lunch hour — easy as pie.

Why the library?
Why didn’t I just buy it from amazon.com or download an electronic version to one of my many devices? I have a couple reasons. First, baking my own fresh bread sounded like a pretty cool idea but I wasn’t ready to make a commitment. I’m a busy Mama and while I like baking I’m not sure it could happen on a daily basis in my home. Second, I’m about making sustainable choices and saving money wherever I can. This means borrowing beats buying in almost every matchup. Finally, I believe in the power and importance of the public library and using their services shows my support.

You will find so much more than just books at your library; CDs DVDs, books on tape, toys and more are available at every branch. There are art exhibits and opportunities to learn about local art and history. The library supports the community by offering computers with internet service for those who don’t have access to these tools at home. Library patrons can even take free computer classes so they are better able to use the technology.

Is it convenient?
Some will argue that the library isn’t as convenient as buying/downloading your own copy. I’d say sometimes that is true, but not most of the time. Let’s look back to the bread book example I gave a moment ago. What if there hadn’t been a copy available at a branch near my office? No problem! If the library branch you use does not have the material you need you can join a waiting list or have the book transferred from another library. Intra-library transfer is an awesome and underutilized service. The library will move a book from a faraway branch to the one in your ‘hood with other transfers.  You remember those 4R’s of Sustainability we talk about – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink. This is Reduce at its finest. Instead of fifteen people criss-crossing the city on fifteen trips to get the books and materials they want, the library consolidates shipments through their inventory management systems and patrons stop by their nearby branch to collect their items. Another advantage to using holds/transfers is that the book is waiting for you on the hold shelf, arranged alphabetically with your name on it. I’m all for the Dewy Decimal System but finding your name alphabetically on a shelf is easier any day.

I’ve found two inconveniences to using the library. First, the hours aren’t the same every day due to funding cuts and budget constraints. Second, you have to remember to take their stuff back to them on time or you will incur fines. Granted it’s only $0.20/item/day ($0.10/item/day for Children’s materials), it’s better not to be in hock with the library. Fortunately, a smartphone can solve both of these little inconveniences. The library’s mobile website gives each local branch’s hours so you will never arrive to locked doors. In addition, you will receive email reminders when your materials are coming due. You can even renew online if a trip to the library doesn’t fit your schedule that day. If you happen to drive by during closed hours you can slip those literary treasures in the book return where they’ll be safe and sound until the librarians pick them up in the morning.

What other services do they offer?
The library is truly a community institution offering a wide variety of services. There are sixteen branches in Phoenix and each one offers a place for neighbors to gather, kids to learn, students to research and families to explore culture and the arts. The library branches are full of free public art exhibits. Some are permanent pieces and others travel between branches or are featured for a short time.

Classes and programs at the library are a huge advantage to the community. They offer everything from infants story and play time to homework help for grade school age kids, to teen poetry slams and basic computer skills classes for all ages. Library programs help adults build resumes and advance job searches. They have community programs, special bilingual family story time to help break down language barriers and even English as a Second Language classes free for anyone who has the interest.

One of my favorite library features is the Culture Pass. Each library has a set of cards that can be checked out in exchange for free admission for up to 2 people at a local museum, zoo, park or art exhibit. There is no cost and there is no catch. The only thing you have to do is go to the library and choose from the available options OR decide where you want to explore for free and go to the branch that has an available Culture Pass. Culture passes are one of the few items that can’t be reserved or transferred to a local branch but most often the special trip is worthwhile when you don’t have to pay at the museum’s admission desk.

What about e-books and digital materials?
As if books, movies, meeting places, homework help, Culture Passes and story hours aren’t enough, the good folks at the library know how much we love our digital devices. That’s why there is a whole section of their website devoted to digital services. A little exploration here will lead you to e-books, audio books, apps and more that you can download for a pre-set borrowing period. You never have to leave the house and late returns are a thing of the past because the transaction is 100% digital. We live in the future and the future is pretty stinkin’ cool.

I’ve given a lot of love to the Phoenix Public Library here but the same story is true everywhere. No matter where you live or how small your town is, chances are you have a quality library that offers many of these valuable gifts. The bottom line: Go to the library. Take your kids. Take your friends. Take your time. Discover all of the treasures within and share them with the ones you love. There are bountiful resources out there so make sure to enjoy them. When you do, please be sure to share your favorite finds and the ways you love your local library.

Chalkboard Jars

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

A quick visit to Pinterest and it is easy to see that mason jars are a household essential. Of all the crafty applications out there I was most excited to try chalkboard paint labels on a few jars. As I mentioned in a previous post, you can get great deals when you buy bulk food but the lack of packaging can lead to a tangled heap of plastic bags in the pantry. Storing dry goods in jars keeps everything neat and tidy and the clear container helps you remember what you have so you don’t double buy or let things go to waste.

Today I have two quick and easy tutorials for you: chalkboard jars and chalkboard lids. The jars are great for labeling even when you don’t need a lid. I use one for small craft supplies that I don’t want to misplace like my x-acto knife, glue stick and scissors. The chalkboard lids are a great way to re-use lids that have already sealed a jar. They won’t seal again but they remain airtight and with a coat (or three) of chalkboard paint you turn a single-use item into a multi-use item.

FINAL_RR_Chalkboard Jars_09252013_1

Here’s what you will need:
Mason jars, quart size
Flat jar lids & rings, preferably used
Chalkboard paint (I used Transform Mason chalkboard paint by Ball)
Paint brush
Paint palette (I prefer a clean yogurt cup rescued from the recycle bin)
Scotch Blue painter’s tape, 1 7/8” wide
Chalk

Chalkboard Jars

FINAL_RR_Chalkboard Jars_09252013_2

Every jar has a smooth side, a logo side and a side seam where the two halves were fused together. Naturally you will paint the smooth side of the jar but getting a perfectly even, consistently sized place to paint isn’t as easy as it looks. The best way to get even paint lines every time is to line up your tape with the side seam. From there, move on to the top of the jar. This is the trickiest part because there is a big difference between the jar and the neck, however creating a piece of painter’s tape one and a half times the width of your side seam tape and measuring up from the countertop will put your paint line in the perfect spot. Finally measuring from the counter top and applying 1 width of tape to the bottom gives you a perfect square to work with.

FINAL_RR_Chalkboard Jars_09252013_3

Apply chalkboard paint in thin, even coats allowing to dry for a few minutes between applications. After the third coat allow at least one hour drying time before you write on it with chalk. The first coat goes on very thin and the glass shows through — I thought perhaps there was a problem but after I applied the second coat it evened out nicely. When the paint is completely dry you may hand wash or use the dishwasher top rack. Avoid direct contact with the food in painted areas. Although the manufacturer doesn’t specifically call it out, I do not recommend using these for water bath canning. Once you chalkboard paint a jar it is best to reserve it for dry goods only.

Chalkboard Lids

FINAL_RR_Chalkboard Jars_09252013_4

Making chalkboard lids is even easier than making jars. For this all you need to do is paint a used flat jar lid with three even coats of chalkboard paint and as with the jars allow at least one hour drying time after you apply the third coat. The advantage to painting used lids instead of jars is that you would still be able to use the jars in water bath canning with new lids. If you have a limited number of jars or need to keep them in the canning rotation, chalkboard lids might be the right choice for you.

FINAL_RR_Chalkboard Jars_09252013_5

If you try this project please let us know. What other mason jar or chalkboard paint projects have you done? Share your tips, tricks and ideas here.

Downtown Phoenix Public Market

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Left to my own devices, I hit my stride in the afternoon and I could go until midnight without the bat of an eye. All of that is behind me since our bright and early daughter came into our world. I don’t know how it happened but I gave birth to a morning person. Now I rise early to “Mama, I like yogurt!” bellowing down the hall from her room. Getting up at the crack of dawn isn’t all bad, really. I act like I don’t like it but the truth is I appreciate the solid Mama-Daughter time with my girl and we often go out in search of adventures while Jacob catches some Saturday morning ZZZ’s. Sometimes we do mundane chores like groceries, post office and bank. Other times we treasure hunt at a thrift shop or run around the park with our arms out to the sides pretending to be airplanes. Sometimes we stay in our jams, eat kid cereal and watch TV. When it is not oppressively hot we enjoy a trip to the Downtown Phoenix Farmer’s Market.

On a recent Saturday morning adventure we picked up fellow Wilderness Girl Christie and hit up the market. Our first stop was the Market Café. A few months back the café changed ownership and it is a whole new experience. The food is simple, fresh and healthy, often made with ingredients from the farmer’s market next-door. So far the frittata is my favorite dish. The griddled new potatoes are not to be missed but the two together are a feast so I recommend finding a friend to split the bounty. You’ll have plenty to satisfy you but still leave a little room for a mid-market snacking and sampling.

Our second stop on this particular morning was the One Windmill Farms farm stand where I spoke with Dave. I asked what is most important to know about the farm and he explained to me that all of the produce is grown organically without chemicals or pesticides. He went on to say that everything is Arizona-grown on land in Queen Creek or Wilcox. This means all of the produce travels less than 200 miles from farm to table. There were red and green champagne grapes, a few varieties of beautiful purple eggplants, beets bigger than my fist, rows and rows of red ripe tomatoes — all of it just a few days removed from the soil. I selected some potatoes and leeks, patty pan squash, sweet potatoes and three of those lovely beets. The food was selling fast and Dave told me that most days they nearly sell out but what is left is donated to charity and the scraps are fed to the free range barnyard chickens. Nothing is ever wasted.

FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_1  FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_2

A few rows down at a much smaller booth a woman sells cucumbers, melons, parsley and eggplants. At the very center of the table is a large stack of flatbread. The woman is an Iraqi refugee. She and her husband till, plant, tend and harvest a small piece of urban farmland in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). When we ask more, the woman reveals she fled Iraq four years ago and she misses home. She is working hard to learn English and takes classes at Rio Salado Community College four days a week. Her hard work is paying off and we enjoyed the conversation with her. She offered us a taste from the tall stack of naan and we were hooked. Her bread was flecked with white and black sesame seeds. It had a crisp texture on the bottom and dough bubbles throughout balanced with an incredibly satisfying chewiness. For me, this is a market must-have.

FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_3  FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_4

One of the largest booths at the market is Maya’s Farm which is an organic farm that practices sustainable, biodynamic methods of cultivation. This booth has the most variety and is so beautifully arranged that the produce practically jumps out at you. We saw lovely varieties of squash, peppers and beans. Maya herself was at the booth to answer questions about her beautiful flowers and interesting fruits.

FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_5  FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_6

In the very center of the market amid all the hustle and bustle, a woman spins yarn from wool. Celia is her name and she owns the Chili Acres farm. They started out raising goats for cheese and other goat’s milk products. A few years ago Cecilia took a weaving course from Navajo elders and fell in love. From there she started getting interested in sheep and spinning. On this morning she was spinning wool from her Navajo churro sheep, Cousin It. Into the wool fibers she spun bits of red and pink from the cochineal she harvested from the cactus on the farm. There are bits of green in the skein she just finished and those are derived from carrot tops. No chemicals go into the yarn she spins, the cheese she crafts or the gluten free baked goods she offers for sale. Next week (9/26) in partnership with the Phoenix Permaculture Alliance, Celia is teaching a class on felting with a “make and take” project for students.

My favorite baker, AZ Bread was at the market with their beautiful hand-formed, hearth fired loaves of country sourdough, chili cheese and cranberry orange. Husband and wife team Gretchen and Ron man the booth together and they’re always happy to talk about the different breads and even share samples.

FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_7

What’s bread without a little peanut butter? Our last stop of the morning was at the Peanut Butter Americano booth. This was my first taste of PB Americano but Wilderness Girl Jenny has been a fan for quite some time and she has impeccable taste so I knew we were in for a treat. The company was founded by two classmates who share a passion for service, believe free enterprise is the solution to poverty and are working in a very personal way to help make that change for some of the poorest people in the Americas. While the founders weren’t able to make it to the market that morning they did send a proud mother in their stead. It was such fun to talk to her and hear the story behind PB Americano’s philanthropic mission.

FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_8  FINAL_RR_Phoenix Public Market_09182013_9
If you want to visit the Downtown Phoenix Public Market here’s what you need to know:

Website: http://foodconnect.org/phxmarket/

Hours
Café: Daily 7am-10pm
Open Air Market: Wednesday 5pm-8pm, Saturday (May-Sept) 8am-Noon, Saturday (Oct – April)     8am-1pm
Food Truck Friday: Friday 11am-1:30pm

Payment: Cash is best but there are several vendors with card readers attached to their smart phones. You can also use the market ticket system to collect tickets as you browse for everything you want to buy then settle at the main tent and go around with your receipt to pick up your wares.

Parking: Parking in the adjacent lot is free and there are several metered spots in the surrounding blocks. Meters don’t have to be fed on Saturdays.

Dogs: Polite leashed dogs are always welcome.

Don’t forget: A reusable bag for your treasures. During summer it is a good idea to leave a cooler in the trunk of your car to prevent wilting/melting/spoiling.

Where are your favorite farmers markets? Do you have vendors you have to see every time? Tell us all about it in the comments — we love to hear from you!

Bargains by the Scoopful

Monday, September 9th, 2013

When was the last time you stopped by the bulk food section of your local grocery? If you’ve never experienced the frugal, sustainable, delicious treats in the bulk bins or it has been a while since you last indulged now is the time to check it out.

FINAL_RR_Bargains by the Scoopfull_09092013_1

Why bulk?
Price – There are amazing treasures to be had for pennies on the dollar compared to packaged foods. For example, one local retailer offers organic quick cooking oats in the breakfast food section for $6.99/32oz pkg. A few aisles over in the bulk section those same organic oats are priced at $1.49/lb or $2.98/32oz. That’s a savings of $4.01 over the prepackaged product.

Freshness – Bulk foods move quickly so the product tends to be really fresh. In the oats example, think of how long it might take your family to eat two pounds of dry oats. If you purchase just as much as you need for a week or two you win twice: fresh oats for your table plus you get to keep more of your money for a longer time. If you buy the big package, the store gets the full purchase price up front while you get to store surplus oats as they age in your pantry.

Packaging – When you buy bulk you cut out all of the excess packaging that might otherwise end up in a landfill. Even if your family recycles, packaged goods force you to bring home extra “stuff” In the form of boxes, bags and plastic films. With bulk, you bring home a single plastic bag that can be reused as a trash bin liner, taken along when you walk the dog or even recycled on your next trip back to the grocery.

FINAL_RR_Bargains by the Scoopfull_09092013_2

Where to shop
Bulk foods are available at many grocery store chains but selection can be limited compared to natural food stores. There are some really impressive bins of healthy choices at Whole Foods and Sprouts. For the price conscious shopper who needs a bargain and a lot of options but doesn’t necessarily require organics, Winco foods can’t be beat. Some stores even have a link on their website that allows you to look up nutrition facts and recipes for their bulk foods.

What to buy
Start with pantry staples like salt, sugar, flour, oats or rice. Buy just enough though; don’t let the bargain price lead you to over-buy or you forfeit some of the benefit. Try a scoop or two of granola, nuts, candy or seeds. Next time you are planning to bake skip the baking aisle entirely and pick up your flour, sugar, oats and chocolate chips from the bulk section.

Storage
Even though you are buying in manageable quantities you’ll need to store the food at home so it stays fresh. My pick: Mason jars, of course! Jars allow food to be stored safely in glass and away from scary plastic chemicals. The clear glass makes it easy to see the food in your pantry which makes you more likely to use up what you have instead of wasting or buying duplicate. For dry goods a lid that has been used for sealing a jar in the past can be washed and reused, turning a single-use item into a reusable item.

No matter what you choose, if you try bulk food you will find good, fresh products that keep your wallet full and your carbon footprint light. The beauty of bulk is that no matter what new item you try, you are not making a commitment so try a scoop of adventure today!

Are you a bulk food newbie? Check out this video from Sprouts.

Experienced bulk buyers, what are some of your favorite finds?