Friday, October 16, 2015

Don't hate on Hamburger Helper!

We've all been there. The clock strikes 5:00pm and we are still looking in our cabinet trying to decode a dish to feed our starving families. Shoot... sometimes we don't even make it into the kitchen at 5:00pm - sometimes it's more like 6:25pm... guilty!

Frequently the act of frugality is often associated with the idea of cooking everything from scratch to save money. But this is not necessarily the case. While the word "frugal" can mean different things to similar people the outcome is always the same: Saving money. Now there are some people out there that believe that making all meals from scratch to be not only less expensive but healthier for you as well. While the healthier factor is likely true the "less expensive" factor is not always. My perfect example is: Hamburger Helper!

There are four reasons why this boxed meal will always be close to my heart:

Making this skillet dish requires 3 ingredients (in addition to the box mix of course): Ground beef, milk and water. These are items we tend to try to save money on everyday and usually have on hand already so no inconvenience there! 

Preparation time - you cannot beat a 20 minute cook time from pan to plate. 

Price: Cheap. The typical shelf price at Walmart is around $1.58 per box but many grocery stores in my area (and I'm pretty sure all over the country) will quite frequently put every variety on sale for $1.00 each and I have even seen them as low as $.79! There are constantly coupons out there whether they are printable from home or a tear pad at the grocery store which is usually around a $.20 per box discount too which makes it even cheaper.

Variety. There are so many options you could have a different one once a week for a few months before repeating. Don't forget the chicken or tuna varieties!

Whenever I whip up a box for dinner last minute I almost always use a boxed potato mix with it because if I'm gonna go boxed meal... I go all out! It's hard to beat 5 minute potatoes. Boil up a canned veg and you have dinner in literally 20 minutes. BOOM!

Now, it's not the healthiest meal but I do think it's better for you than an ordered pizza and much better for your wallet too. I always have a shelf in my cabinet dedicated to Hamburger Helper because even though I meal plan... something always seems to go off course and I need these to keep me on track! Like tonight... allergies hit our house hard and the last thing I wanted to do was stand around in the kitchen cooking. Hamburger Helper to the rescue!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Scalloped Potatoes with Ham ($.69 per serving!)

Scalloped potatoes are a favorite in our house. Papa Woody goes weak in the knees over a good cheese sauce. Since it's so easy... I indulge him every once in awhile! 
Sometimes I'll make standard scalloped potatoes as a side but tonight I felt like doing a one dish recipe so I threw some ham in there and it was delish!

Here's what you'll need:

8 medium russet potatoes (approx. $1.50)
1 lb fully cooked smoked ham ($1.75)
4 tbsp butter ($.25)
4 tbsp flour ($.05)
3 cups milk (approx. $.40)
8 oz Velveeta ($1.50)
2 tsp prepared mustard ($.05)
Garlic powder
Onion powder

Boil your potatoes as is until fork tender or cook in the pressure cooker (my preferred method!) but don't peel them first. After they've been cooked, allow the potatoes to cool so that you can handle them. I like to boil them early in the day so they are ready for use when it's time to prepare dinner.
Peel the cooked potatoes and cube them. Cube up your ham and set aside. 
Now you are going to make your cheese sauce which is super simple and super yummy. Start by melting the butter in a sauce pan. Once melted, slowly add your flour and whisk over med-high heat for 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in your milk a little at a time to avoid clumps. turn down to med-low to avoid scalding the sauce.
Whisk in mustard. Season the white sauce with salt, pepper, onion & garlic powder to taste. Add in cubed Velveeta and whisk to melt. Taste and season again if necessary.
In a 9x13 pan, lay out cubed potatoes. Pour half of the cheese sauce over the potatoes. Top with cubed ham then top with the remaining cheese sauce.
Cover and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes. Let sit 5-10 minutes before serving! Makes 8 servings for only $5.50. That's only $.69 per serving!!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Mama's Cheesy Chicken Spaghetti ($1.35 per serving!)

Here's a recipe that I've seen many versions of just floating around the internet. I've even eaten it once at a relative's house but the dish that I recall was suuuuper thick and suuuuuper cheesy in a not so good way - yes, it is possible to have too much cheese (blasphemy!). I wanted to do a pasta dish tonight for supper but didn't want to go Italian which is the obvious route so I decided to tweak this dish a little. I scoured the web for a whopping 15 minutes and couldn't find a recipe that looked right. So what's a mama to do? Make it up as I go!  A little of this, a little of that... some more milk... a little more cheese. Took a little longer than it should have but now that I know what works it should go much faster next time!

This is what I came up with:

12 oz dry spaghetti noodles ($.79 on sale)
4 boneless chicken thighs (approx. $3.00)
1/4 cup butter or margarine ($.30)
2 cans cream of chicken soup ($1.25 on sale)
1 can Rotel, mild ($.97)
8 oz Velveeta ($1.50 on sale)
3/4 cup milk ($.27)
Salt & Pepper

In a large pot, boil chicken thighs in salted water for about 15 minutes until fully cooked. Remove chicken and chop into pieces but do not discard the water. Boil the spaghetti noodles in the chicken broth until cooked through. Drain and dump water but do not rinse the pasta!
Use the same pot to melt the butter and saute the chicken for a quick minute. Add in the Rotel and cream of soups. Sprinkle with salt & pepper and maybe some garlic or onion powder if you're feeling a little more flavor! Once heated through add in cubed Velveeta and heat over low until cheese as melted. Stir in milk and season to taste. Add in the spaghetti and toss to coat. Serve it up! Big 'ol Pot that easily feeds 6 for only $8.08. That's only around $1.35 per serving!

**You could probably do a full 16 oz box of spaghetti noodles and easily stretch this to 8 servings. I did a 12 oz box and it was still pretty saucy but I didn't want to cook more pasta just to add to it!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Surprise! 40 people for dinner!

Okay... true story.

This morning I woke up at 6:30am and proceeded to get my littlest's diaper changed and bottle fixed. While I am giving him his wake-up bottle I am looking through the emails that showed up in my inbox overnight. One email was from 5:00am - informing me that at my eldest son's boy scout meeting (12 hours from then) there was to be a potluck and the pack leader was asking us (every parent in the pack) to bring a dish if we could.

My first reaction was: What?!?! That's like no notice at all! Good thing I don't have anything else to do today! (note the sarcasm). But then I thought a little longer and figured it wasn't that big of a deal. Afterall, I hadn't seen more than a dozen kids in his pack. So it shouldn't be too hard to whip something up for this Potluck dinner.

So it's 3:15pm (150 minutes until the Potluck) and I go to pickup my little Woodchuck from school. While he is walking up to the car I noticed that his pack leader was parked a couple spaces ahead. I told him to walk over and ask her approximately how many people we should be cooking for. He came back and reported: FORTY. 4-0 PEOPLE!

So we went home and I stared into the cabinets. What do I have on hand that can feed 40 people???
I had to go into the canned good section on my stockpile. I always have an abundance of canned beans so I figured I'd go signature campsite fare. BBQ beans... but that's too boring. I figured maybe I could grab a few packages of hot dogs out of the freezer to cut up and toss in there too. Even more classic campfire fare. Better still... I found 4 packages of John Morrell cocktail smokies that I had bought a couple months ago on a crazy good BOGO sale.

So in all I used:
8 cans Van Kamp's Pork & Beans ($3.20 on sale)
4 pkg John Morrell Cocktail Smokies ($3.38 on sale)
1 cup brown sugar ($.30)
1 cup BBQ sauce ($.50)
couple good shakes of liquid smoke ($.05)

Threw everything in a pot. Cooked through and dumped the contents into (and filled to the brim) two 9x13 disposable pans. BOOM. Dinner for 40 for around $7.43! That's around 18 cents per person!!

This is a prime example of the benefit of having a few key ingredients stockpiled at home!

Not too bad for having little to no time to prepare! ;-)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

How I do flour...

As you probably know from my post about RICE - I enjoy buying some things in bulk. I do the same thing with flour for the same reason: It is sooo much cheaper!

I buy both All-Purpose flour and Bread flour at Sam's Club because that's where I find the best price compared to Walmart (or even Aldi!).

Walmart Great Value Brand 5 lb bag $1.72 = $.34 per pound
Sam's Club Bakers 25 lb bag $6.47 = $.25 per pound

What's even greater savings at Sam's Club is bread flour. It's within pennies of price to the All-purpose flour it's even more expensive at Walmart since Great Value doesn't make a bread flour (that I've found). Some people say that bread flour isn't any different than all-purpose but I do notice a difference so I always use bread flour when I make breads or pizza doughs (or whenever a recipe specifically calls for bread flour).

Walmart Pillsbury Bread Flour 5 lbs $2.88 = $.58 per pound
Sam's Club Bakers Bread Flour 25 lb bag $6.54 = $.26 per pound

Storing flour is super important. You cannot just store it in the bag it comes in. There is too much access to air - hence why flour can buff out the sides or top when you pick it up. Flour is one of those things that I keep stored in food grade buckets in our basement. I portion the flour in gallon size ziploc bags and put those in a lidded bucket. The absolute best way to store is to freeze the bags of flour (for two weeks) before putting them in the buckets because that kills any nastiness that might be hiding in the flour. My freezers are currently full so I can't do that this time... living on the edge and praying I don't regret it! Each gallon bag holds approximately 5 lbs of flour so that makes it easy to keep track of how much I have left.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Creamy Chicken & Rice Soup (a leftovers recipe!)

I've found the absolute best ever use of leftovers. Best. EVER!
We make chicken fairly often in our house... strangely enough because it has suddenly become cheaper than ground beef. Weird!
A frequent pairing to chicken is rice. It goes together so well! I came across a garlic ranch chicken with rice recipe and I wanted to give it a try but the recipe made WAAAAY more food than we could eat (this was my suspicion right away but we like having leftovers!) so I decided to use the leftovers to make a whole new meal. I was completely wingin' it and it turned out so wonderfully delicious and it was basically free because I used almost all leftovers!

Now, the veggies part of this recipe is completely flexible. I used a cup of diced celery (that was in my freezer) and a big handful of rough chopped baby carrots that were hanging out in my veggie drawer. You could use any veggie on hand: celery, carrots, broccoli, corn, peas, cauliflower... or just leave the vegetables out. I won't tell!

You'll need:
1 boneless chicken breast, diced (leftover)
2 cups cooked rice (leftover)
2 cups any veggies (leftover)
4 tbsp butter
6 tbsp flour
3 cups milk
2 cups water
2 chicken bouillon cubes
garlic powder
onion powder

In a pan, melt the butter over medium high heat. Whisk in flour a tablespoon at a time until combined into a paste (we're making a roux because we are fancy frugal!). Cook for a minute or so until slightly browned. Whisk in milk about a 1/2 cup at a time. Keep the whisk in constant motion so that it all blends well and you don't end up with chunks. The roux will go through texture stages: Mashed potato to frosting to gravy. Once it reaches the gravy stage go ahead and dump the remaining milk in. Dust the cream sauce with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Let it simmer on a low setting stirring frequently. In a large pot, saute vegetables of choice in oil (or butter) for a few minutes. Add water and bouillon cubes, bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer. Once the vegetables are tender mix in the cream sauce. Add in chicken and rice. Mix well and salt/pepper to taste. Once the rice has been added you might need to add more water until you reach desired consistency since it will be much thicker!  Serve immediately.

This makes a LOT of soup... you can also stretch it even further by adding more water or milk to make it as loose as you'd like. As it sits it makes approximately 8 cups of hearty soup! For almost FREE!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why I'm saying "No" to extreme couponing.

First off, I want to define "extreme couponing". I say that phrase and the first thing people think of is purchasing 200 tubes of toothpaste for pennies in sales tax. That's not what I mean when I say extreme couponing. What I am referring to is simply the act of purchasing goods on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis using coupons to get a discount of 60-100% off retail - regardless of whether or not you need the item at the time in an effort to amass a stockpile (or home grocery store) containing goods that you may eventually use. This doesn't necessarily mean you'll buy 200 tubes of toothpaste at one time but you eventually might get there!

Next, a little personal history lesson. I started couponing a little here and there when my oldest was still a baby. We'd go through phases where money was slim and I wanted to make sure we always had enough food to eat and could use our cash to keep the electricity on. I did not have a huge stockpile - I had just enough to last a few weeks. Back then couponing resources were scarce and I honestly couldn't figure out how to go "hog wild" with it on my own. About 4 years ago many couponing blogs started popping up with bloggers who had mastered the art of "extreme couponing" and I started following. Within weeks... I had a good hang of it! I have now reached a point where many friends come to me with questions about sales or how to use a coupon. I have seemingly all the answers and I love being helpful! I have a huge stockpile that I'm sure could sustain my family a solid year (with the exception of fresh fruits, veggies and dairy items!) and even longer than that when it comes to hygienic products. But this is also why I am choosing to quit...

Time is of the essence. Couponing takes time.
A LOT of time and even more stress. Let me paint a picture:  

There are several steps that come with being an extreme couponer. 
1) you must search sale ads
2) you must search couponing blogs (and you'll want to search multiple ones because one might not have something another has found!)
3) you must locate coupons and store
4) you must organize coupons
5) you must eventually cut coupons
6) you must go to the store (which can be disappointing if some items you went for are out of stock, then you must go back another day!)
7) you must checkout with a stack of coupons and hope it all rings up correctly (stressful!)
8) you must bring it all home
9) you must carry it all inside
10) THEN you have to put it somewhere. You cannot just throw it down - it needs a place. You also have to make sure that you are rotating stock so that older items don't go bad while the newer items are being used. THIS TAKES A LONG TIME. 

**And you get to do this routine for EVERY STORE YOU SHOP. Because it is hard to only shop at one store for deals when you know there are deals on different things at another store.

There is loads of stress and it's for multiple things. 
1) Stress if you planned to get something that is out of stock - wasted time. 
2) Stress at the register trying to make sure the prices rang up correctly and the coupon deducted the correct amount from the total - and there will almost ALWAYS be errors. And it's incredibly frustrating to know that you spent hours planning a trip to find out that you overpaid. GGrrrrr!!
3) Stress over organizing the stockpile - there is ALWAYS something to put away! least it feels that way.
4) Stress over missing out on a good deal - because if you don't get there first then you might not get it. 
5) Stress over finding out you spent too much when you decided to stock up and you punish yourself because you could have saved another $.70 if you would have just waited!! (but note that there is NO WAY that you can see the future, but still you punish yourself...)

Extreme couponing DOES cost money. And depending on your budget - A LOT of money.
Let's say you want to stock up on three things: Canned tomatoes, salad dressing and body wash. There's an AMAZING deal! Canned tomatoes are $.35 per can, dressings are $.75 a bottle and body wash is $.75 each (after all coupons). We are going to buy a modest amount of each because you need to stock up. Let's say 12 cans of tomatoes, 6 bottles of dressing and 5 body washes.

$.35 x 12 cans = $4.20 (retail $10.56)
$.75 x 6 bottles = $4.50 (retail $11.28)
$.75 x 5 washes = $3.75 (retail $9.40)

Total = $12.45 plus tax.

Most states make you pay sales tax on the PRE-coupon amount so in my state that would be around (give or take) $3.05 in sales tax. 

SO after sales tax the total out of pocket is around $15.50 which is awesome! 
But what if your grocery budget for the week is only $75.00?? That's a fairly big chunk to spend on only 3 items! To get a stockpile with a wide variety of items, it is my opinion that you need to stock up on between 5-10 particular items per week. That can hit your grocery budget big time. And yes... you can get some items for "free" but you do need to pay sales tax. And let's not forget the money you spend actually buying the coupon whether it's from a clipping service or simply purchasing a newspaper. Coupons cost money unless they are given to you for free. The grocery budget can easily be thrown off course if you are buying those "good deals" every week.

Let's take a moment and talk about the mess...

Now I want to say, I'm not complaining... much. Having too much food in your house is a wonderful problem to have but it is a problem. What is pictured is my kitchen. Not my stockpile room... the kitchen only. And it's not including above most of my cabinets (which is a littered mess). I cannot find ANYTHING! I need to eventually take the time to pull everything out and organize it - maybe even break out the label maker. But having a 6 month old baby - I have no idea when I'll have the time or energy to do this. It seriously stresses me out to look at it.

You know what upsets me more than anything? I have spent dozens of hours couponing for things that we never even got to use before potentially going bad. Our family has donated thousands of dollars worth of items to the local food bank which is a great thing to do but it was not my initial intention when I purchased the items. I always donate food items and will continue to do so since there will always be a place in my heart for food banks but that's not the only reason I coupon... I want my family to benefit first and foremost! Unfortunately when I go overboard my family doesn't always reap the benefits of my labor. Which can be rather disappointing.

Now since little Woodchip is here I am realizing more and more how very precious my time is. Not just because I want to spend all day looking at his sweet face but because there are so many things that I need to do with my time while he naps! Ordering takeout for dinner because I spent my allotted cooking time putting away the stockpile defeats the purpose of trying to save money!

So in conclusion I have made the final assumption. Extreme couponing might not be for me anymore - time to retire. I will continue to shop sales weekly and will even use a few coupons to get some deals in moderation (preferably the printable coupons so I'm no longer juggling newspaper inserts) but I am only shopping ONE DAY per week. That's it! It's going to be hard. It's an addiction... seriously... an addiction. But it's what I need to do!

For anyone who still has an interest in couponing or wants to learn: More power to you!! I don't want to bash couponing. Don't get me wrong - It is AWESOME to have a grocery store in your home and I strongly believe that everyone should keep some form of stockpile in their home - just maybe do it in another way without going coupon crazy! I never run out of anything non-perishable. But I need to call it quits. Feel free to still ask me questions - I still have the knowledge!

For anyone wanting to start couponing: I highly recommend going to to get started. They have a beginners section and loads of youtube tutorials. Poke around their site and I'll bet you learn tons! ;^)

Welp... this post explains the shift in the blog posts! Hopefully you'll stick around to see what else I might find to post about!

Later my forest friends!