Dec 022011

The first question in my November healthy eating experiment was whether eating at home would aid weight loss and make you healthier.  I told you my results on that yesterday.  The second question in my experiment was whether eating at home saves you money?

Logically, you would think the answer is an automatic yes.  You can listen to the opinions of Suze Orman and Peter Walsh on this or you can run some numbers yourself.

Quantifying the cost of meals at home takes some time and effort and probably few people really do this.  When I looked at my own grocery receipts for the month, it was a little tough to calculate the cost of each recipe.  For example, you don’t buy celery one stalk at a time but rather in one big bunch.  You also can’t buy spices one tablespoon at a time and have to purchase a large bottle.  You may also have some staples at home like flour or rice that you didn’t have to buy.  For simplicity, I calculated the cost of each recipe as just the groceries I had to buy.  If I had to buy a bottle of spices, I put in the cost of the whole bottle but if I used the same ingredient for multiple recipes (like celery) then I spread the cost of the celery bunch over multiple recipes.  I did not account for staples like eggs, milk, butter, flour, oil, etc. that we always stock whether we are cooking or not or didn’t buy this month.  You could probably add on about a dollar to the cost per serving for this.

Here are some examples of our food costs:

Recipe Groceries Cost Cost per serving

Blueberry Orange Smoothie

$20.58 $0.99

Collard Greens

$6.00 $0.99

Beet Soup

$5.66 $1.42

White Bean Soup

$7.94 $1.98

Green Curry Thai Soup

$10.60 $2.65

Cabbage and Sausage

$6.32 $3.16

Mini Pumpkin Pies

$5.58 $0.23

Gourmet Sweet Potato Pie

$9.93 $0.83

When you look at these numbers your first instinct is probably to say, “Wow!  That’s so cheap!”  There isn’t a restaurant around that charges per serving prices like those.  You would expect that those dollars go right back into your pocket.

But this is where it gets complicated.

When I compared my total food budget for November (eating out plus groceries) with the last five months, the savings weren’t as high as you might guess.   (We looked at a five month span because our food budget goes up and down depending on whether we have guests visiting, we are hosting a party, etc.)

Money Saved: $27 – $400

The total savings eating at home ranged from an impressive $400 to a rather paltry $27.  While $27 a month over the course of a year is $324, when you factor in the amount of work to cook and wash dishes, $27 is hardly inspiring.  We also don’t tend to eat out much at high end restaurants and know of several yummy places (aside from McDonald’s and Taco Bell) where we can feed our entire family for a grand total of $20 – $30.  One friend found that he and his wife actually spent more money cooking at home because they were cooking similar high-end meals to restaurant fare.

When I looked over the past five months, I found that we keep a pretty good balance between grocery and eating out money.  If we are eating out a lot, we buy fewer groceries.  If we buy a lot of groceries, we eat out less.

We also have to put aside some money for eating out for my husband’s lunches at work.  He has built an impressive network of colleagues that frequently go out for lunch or have happy hours.  If these were just social lunches, he could skip them and bring a lunch to eat at his desk.  However, since these lunches have generally built the network that he relies on for his employment and have directly or indirectly resulted in his last several jobs, it would be a foolish bargain to sacrifice them.  In his field, people like to get away from the office to have important conversations.  Not every office works this way and I have seen several offices where people are too busy to go out to eat.  In this situation, you might network better in the office lunchroom than the corner restaurant.  So you have to gauge this for yourself.

Why doesn’t eating at home generate more savings?  I think the primary reason has to do with waste.  Even the most frugal person is going to waste some food money eating at home.  Your recipe might not turn out as expected and you throw away what you don’t want to eat.  You might accidentally overcook something and have to throw it out.  You might forget to use your perishable produce before it spoils.  Even if you manage to avoid these pitfalls, there is some built-in waste in the food buying process.  For example, you pay by the pound for your produce but there are parts of that produce (carrot tops, onion skins, etc.) that most people cut off and don’t eat.  You might have to buy special ingredients that are only available in large quantities for a recipe you make only occasionally.

There is also an interesting psychological effect that happens when eating at home (at least for me).  I tend to look at the food I have prepared and think, “It was so much work to make this plus we spent good money on the groceries for it so we better eat all of it.”  We don’t like to eat leftovers for more than a day or two after the initial meal so we hurry to eat the food while it is still relatively fresh.  Because of this, we may end up eating more than we might if we were at a restaurant which may also be increasing the grocery bill.

So, bottom line, does eating at home really save you money?

It depends.

If you want to this answer to be a definitive yes, you have to assume either that people are eating out constantly (at least one meal per day), or that people are eating at relatively expensive restaurants.  You also have to assume that people will trade down their food choices at home to be something less indulgent than what you eat in a restaurant.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for example, rather than turkey, swiss, avocado and sprouts. (mmmm!)  If you are an incredible cook and an avid coupon shopper you may be able to really maximize your savings but these are skills that build up over time and not everyone will see this success right away when they first start eating at home.

The answer shifts more to a no (or not much) if you already eat at home quite a bit and eat out only on occasion.  It also is more likely to be no if you know how to eat out inexpensively, if you are trying to reproduce restaurant meals or gourmet cooking at home or if you waste a lot of groceries due to food spoilage or bad cooking.

Now, there are certainly many other reasons to cook at home aside from financial ones.  Some people just really enjoy cooking.  Others might have food allergies, religious or health preferences that require that they know exactly what ingredients go into their food.  Some may fear how their children will behave in a restaurant.

There is no “right” answer to this question.  We each have to balance it for ourselves.

As for me, I will feel a little less guilty eating out now.  We still can save some money eating at home but there is no need to eat at home exclusively under the guise of saving money.  On this point, I think of some of the frugal, retired people I know who like to eat at all-you-can-eat buffets or order the Happy Meal at McDonald’s, giving the toy away to eager kids dining nearby.

How do you balance the expense of eating out versus cooking at home?  Please share in the comments.

P.S.  It was also interesting to compare this experiment with my eat-from-the-pantry experiment in 2009 where I saved approximately $600 eating at home.



Nov 252011

Our Thanksgiving meal. The popcorn is my daughter's addition.

What a feast! I spent all day cooking and just about the time many people were probably getting in their cars for some early Black Friday shopping we were sitting down to eat. My 3 year old decided that the proper attire for such a meal was pajamas. Obviously, I still need to work on my timing but our meal was probably the best full Thanksgiving I have ever prepared!

We tried the collard greens and have mixed feelings about them. They are kind of delicious but the chewy texture is a little tough to get used to. They go down best with extra red hot pepper sauce and they were pretty good again today in our Thanksgiving leftovers sandwiches.

Collard greens (from Paula Deen's recipe).

I also made Cristeta Comerford’s sweet potato pie. This was kind of a funny experience. For some reason, even though I read through the recipe beforehand, I did not process exactly what would be required to make this pie. Here is a bit of my thought process.

First, I put the “aromatics” on a sheet tray and baked the sweet potatoes. I forgot to buy an orange so I quickly grated the zest off the lemon that I needed for the custard part and cut that up instead. I left them in the oven for about an hour.

I then worked on the dough which ultimately came together nicely into a ball as the recipe described.

After taking the dough out from its “rest,” I suddenly realized that I would need to roll this out into a real pie crust…something I have NEVER done before. After a few false starts, I finally got it rolled out

and made a half-decent pie crust.

Then the recipe said, “Top with parchment paper and cooking beads and bake blind for 12 minutes.” Small problem . . . we didn’t have parchment paper. I am not sure what cooking beads are and I don’t know what “bake blind” means. Somehow I recalled either a recipe I made years ago (or maybe something I saw on TV) and lined the crust with aluminum foil and put some uncooked rice in to weight it down.

Fox Run Ceramic Pie Weights at

It came out OK so I figured that must have been close enough.

Next it was time to prepare the sweet potato puree. Things were going OK until the recipe said, “Scoop the meat and pass through a chinoise.” What in the world is a chinoise? I scooped out the sweet potato meat and mashed it with a fork. (I thought to use the strainer in the picture below but the meat was too tough to go through.)

It was still pretty lumpy so I put it in the blender for a bit! The blender couldn’t handle it either so it was back to mashing with a fork again.

Norpro Stainless Steel Chinois with Stand and Pestle Set at

I got it as smooth as I could but there were still a few lumps in it. I probably should have cooked the potatoes some more at this point to make it softer but I needed the oven and didn’t think to do it on top of the stove. I assumed the chinoise must be some super sort of masher or blender that would get all the lumps out. It is.

After getting the puree as smooth as I could, I made the custard and added it in. Things were looking pretty good at this point!

I poured the filling into the crust and put it in the oven.

Fat Daddio's Fluted Tart Pan 12 Inch x 2 Inch Removable Bottom at

While Cristeta’s recipe calls for a “12 inch tart pan,” the grocery store did not sell this so I substituted a 9” pie pan. The problem is that making the pie deeper will increase the cooking time. After the 35 minutes the recipe called for, the crust was perfectly brown but the center of the pie was still uncooked. I gave it 10 more minutes but it still was nowhere near to being cooked. I lowered the heat to 250 and let it cook for probably another hour or so. This pie smells incredible while it is baking! I think it is due to the anise. My husband came down and said, “Mmmmm…..something smells soo good!” which was very satisfying after all that work. I let the pie cook for as long as I could but eventually I needed the oven for my turkey so I took it out and hoped for the best.

As I was washing up dishes after our meal, I noticed that the tag for my Pyrex pie pan indicated that you should never put glass under the broiler. Small problem for the honey meringue topping for dessert! Rather than risk burning the whole pie and cracking my pie dish, I decided to make the meringue on a metal sheet tray and just scoop it onto the pie.

The honey meringue topping is the very best part of this whole dish. Even if sweet potato pie does not appeal to you, you should try this meringue and have it on ice cream or cake. It is soooooooo good. I whipped the egg whites.

Added the warm honey (which, unfortunately had boiled over on the stove leaving me a honey mess to clean up).

Poured it on the baking sheet . . .

and put it under the broiler for about 30 seconds. It came out nice and brown.

The broiler just browns the top and doesn’t firm the meringue so it doesn’t scoop all that well but you can imagine how good this would be if done properly.

When we cut into the finished pie, it was pretty good!

My daughters who liked the mini pumpkin pies I made earlier in the week anxiously wanted a slice. But then they saw that my pie had some chunks of sweet potato in it.

“I don’t like this. It has vegetables in it.”
my 3 year old reported.

After this experience, we can conclude two things:

1) Cristeta Comerford is a seriously talented chef. If I can mess up her recipe this badly and it still comes out relatively great, that shows some serious cooking skills. Her flavorings are so subtle, beautiful and unique. The Obamas must eat some elegant food.

2) Before I attempt another recipe of this culinary magnitude, I need to double check for the right cooking utensils as well as ingredients. If you have all of these utensils in your kitchen, you are probably a seriously talented chef as well!

I hope your Thanksgiving cooking (or eating) experience was just as fun and interesting.

Ruly Tip: If you did cook this year, consider taking a moment to write your recipe(s) down as well as any notes about shopping for special ingredients or cooking tools, how long it takes to make, etc. Store your notes and recipes in a special file, binder or type it on a 3×5 card and create a flip-book ring. Not only will this help you next year when you are planning your meal but it is a great way to preserve memories and would make a great gift to a new cook as well.

What were your favorite foods at the Thanksgiving table this year? What other memories do you want to remember? Please share in the comments.

Nov 222011

So far, almost everyone I have spoken with is not cooking this Thanksgiving! They are all traveling or joining a group dinner at a family member’s home. We are on our own this holiday (but missing our families across the country dearly) so I will be cooking for my family.

I had a little Thanksgiving preview this morning, having the privilege of accompanying a young “Native American” to her preschool Thanksgiving feast.

We made mashed potatoes and mini pumpkin pies and had a mini feast with the other kids and moms and dads. The house now smells of pumpkin pie and is setting a warm and festive tone for the long weekend.

While I have told you numerous times that I am still a novice cook, there are a couple lessons I have learned the hard way about cooking for Thanksgiving.

1) If you don’t have your turkey, go to the store as soon as possible! Last night, the grocery store closest to our house ran out of frozen turkeys! “And we aren’t getting any more,” the butcher informed an inquiring customer. But don’t stress, you could always go for something else—a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, turkey drumsticks or wings, ground turkey for turkey burgers, etc. Over the years, we have been so busy working that the only time we had to go to the store was right on Thanksgiving Day. At that time, all that was left were some Cornish game hens in the freezer section. Those worked out just fine too—much better than the year that all that was left was an enormous 20 pound turkey! After years of getting it wrong, this year I got my turkey early, picking up a frozen turkey breast in early November.

2) If you have a frozen turkey, it is time to put it in the fridge to defrost. If it doesn’t defrost in time, you will have to put it in cold water baths in the sink. (I have no idea what happens if you put a frozen turkey right into the oven but I suspect the results are terrible as no one recommends this.)

3) Spread out the cooking. If you are making a lot of side dishes or desserts, many chefs suggest that you make them tomorrow, one day ahead, and store them in the fridge so they just need to be reheated on Thanksgiving Day.

4) Create a cooking timeline. It is also a good idea to review your recipes today to see what you should cook tomorrow versus Thursday so that you have enough oven space for your dishes. It is also time to buy any missing ingredients and start setting your table.

We try to mix things up each Thanksgiving and add something new to the menu. This year, we are adding a Southern twist to our meal. For the first time ever, we will try cooking collard greens! We have never tasted them before but we understand that many people consider them a Thanksgiving staple. The nutritional value of the greens is so high it probably would be a good idea if we all started eating them. We are using Paula Deen’s recipe. By the time Paula Deen finishes with these greens, they may not be nutritious any more but they are certain to taste incredible!

Collard greens in abundance at the grocery store.

The other new food we are trying out is sweet potato pie. Until we moved to the D.C. area, we had never heard of sweet potato pie. It too is a southern staple. Those that don’t eat sweet potato pie, have a casserole of sweet potatoes, marshmallows and brown sugar. For my first sweet potato pie, I am being a bit ambitious and trying out White House chef Cristeta Comerford’s version. I know I am already in over my head as our local grocery store does not carry star anise nor crème fraiche. We had to substitute anise extract and sour cream. I hope this doesn’t ruin it. I have also never broiled meringue before. Wish me luck that I don’t burn it! If all else fails, we have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on hand!

Louisiana yams (sweet potatoes).

As I mentioned above, my other dessert risk this year was to make mini pumpkin pies. They turned out really cute and my pumpkin pie hating husband even liked them since they don’t have a soggy pumpkin middle and are more crunchy in texture from the crust.

We took this recipe for graham cracker crust and pressed it into mini muffin cups.


We made the recipe on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can and poured in the filling. We baked the mini pies for about 12 minutes at 350 degrees and then lowered the oven temperature to about 300 degrees and kept checking every 5 minutes until a knife inserted in the center came out clean. We had so much filling left over that I was able to make another pumpkin pie in a square casserole dish!

The finished mini pies. They were quite popular and my picky 6-year old even ate them! Success!

To all of my readers, wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving and hope that you enjoy this special time with your family and loved ones!

Are you cooking for Thanksgiving? What is on your menu this year? Please share in the comments.

Nov 172011

Next week, we are coming up on the biggest meat-eating holiday of the entire year . . . Thanksgiving!  As a special challenge to Ruly Ruth, I inquired what she would do if she had to host a vegetarian Thanksgiving.  While I have never been invited to such an event myself, I have encountered several people in the D.C. area who have hosted vegetarian Thanksgiving celebrations.  One friend indicated that her father was livid that there would be no turkey on Thanksgiving, even though she was preparing “Tofurky.”  How would Ruly Ruth resolve this situation?  Read on for her suggestions.


Ruly Ruth is a carnivore who seeks out rare meats–I’ve eaten kangaroo, crocodile, alligator, caribou, elk, deer, buffalo, moose, and the list goes on. So 2 problems with this presented themselves immediately: 1) wrapping my head around a non-traditional turkey Thanksgiving; and 2) Thanksgiving is traditionally a meal around a large meat roast–the iconic image of Norman Rockwell! It’s not like other holidays where the meal can be mixed or matched…’s turkey! And Stuffing! And gravy! And potatoes (usually) and vegetables–often carrots, sometimes parsnips….with cranberry jelly or sauce…or lingonberry jelly for me! So why or how on earth would I come up with a MEATLESS Thanksgiving???

Then I had an epiphany. And it was actually based on a new recipe for turkey–this woman did it southwest style with tamales instead of stuffing inside! So I’ve decided that Thanksgiving is more about regional and hearty and beloved cuisine than the traditional magazine spread.

So for your main course–to veer from that roasted meat platter….go regional! Make tamales, or enchiladas. In Greece, we could do a lovely spanikopita. Or Italian–with raviolis or lasagna. Or eggplant parmesan! That would make a lovely centerpiece. And couscous or a rice dish to compliment. Obviously sweet potatoes or regular potatoes go with all of this! My mother makes a killer stuffing out of pine nuts, celery, carrots and who knows what else—it’s not a bread-based stuffing–but it’s AMAZING and lovely! Something like that would be a great compliment too.

Another idea especially with the colder weather approaching for most of us, is to do a wonderful hearty soup! Potato leek or a nice pumpkin soup with a lovely roll or bread load would be wonderful. (This would also make a wonderful appetizer as well.) And a great side salad—sounds like a great meal to me!

And lovely fruits for dessert–I just watched Gordon Ramsay on the F Word make a lemon curd tart, to mix it up from a traditional pumpkin pie. We’ve also had cheesecake in the past, and special ice creams as well–very fun to mix it up at times.

Sourcing ingredients for special meals is often where I will splurge on my precious grocery dollars. Going to a farmer’s market for the vegetables and fruit, and specialty shops for jams or lemon curd or fresh breads or what-have-you is a special treat–and what better time than the holidays to do this, when you’re preparing a meal for very special family and friends! Also this supports these local businesses that may not get our usual weekly grocery money. A win-win, I’d say!

Also don’t forget to spread the love of the meal and donate an item or more to the local food bank. My daughter’s preschool is collecting food for a meal for 4 for Thanksgiving. She’ll be bringing in 2 boxes of turkey stuffing. Canned cranberry jelly, stuffing, mashed potatoes mixes, canned pumpkin–don’t forget to add 1 or more of these basic Thanksgiving items to your cart this next shopping trip! It’s greatly appreciated.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


So, Ruly Ruth says if you are serving veggie Thanksgiving to meat eaters, don’t use a soy-based meat substitute but rather go for something completely different.  Would you mind if there was no turkey at your Thanksgiving celebration?  Any vegetarians out there?  What do you say?  Please share in the comments.

P.S.  FabFitFun also did a post today about vegetarian Thanksgiving.  You can read their suggestions and recipes here.

Nov 172011

I’m over the halfway point in my healthy eating and exercise experiment this month!  How are things?

Healthy Eating Progress

I would give myself about a B- for my fruit and vegetable eating efforts.  We have eaten every single meal at home this month so far but our produce quotient is below where it needs to be.  I started off the month strong but now at Day 17, I have lost a lot of that initial enthusiasm.  I still like my blueberry-orange smoothies and my 3-year old even asked for one for her the other day!  (For diadia’s benefit, I recently tried replacing the milk with water and it is just as yummy and cuts out about 1/3 of the calories, although it cuts the protein out too.)

This week I am stuck in a treacherous soup rut.  I dusted off a soup cookbook that has been sitting on my shelf for years now.  I bought all the ingredients for 4 different soups.  We have had two of them so far—a white bean and a beet soup—and we don’t particularly care for them.  These soups are probably extraordinarily healthy for you.  They are full of veggies and have very low salt.  But that’s also the problem.  There is nothing to draw you to eat them.  I struggle to make myself cook them and we struggle to finish them off.  Each soup makes enough for about 2 meals worth.  I have two more soups left to make from this cookbook.  If I were a better cook, I might know how to season them better or swap ingredients to make them more to our taste.  I feel compelled to finish the two remaining recipes because unless I come up with another recipe that uses the same ingredients, I will have wasted my grocery money—defeating part of the purpose of this month’s challenge.

White bean soup. Good but could use more seasoning.

Beet soup. Not my favorite.

Greek salad. One of the yummier vegetable dishes this week!

To compensate for my bland soups, I find myself eating more sweets, bread, yogurt and granola bars.  My “half your plate” balance is getting quite off.  After we get through the last two soups, I will look for vegetable recipes that have something else in them we will really want to eat, like cheesy veggie lasagna!  My 6-year old asks every two days when we will get to eat at Subway again.  “December,” I keep telling her.

Exercise Progress

I have kept to my 20 minutes of exercise every day and give myself an A for effort in this area.  I don’t see a dramatic difference in my weight as yet but I certainly do see a difference in my strength and endurance.  Push-ups aren’t as much of a challenge as they were on day one.  I still need to work on my cardiovascular fitness but I can “jump rope” in place for 30 seconds without dying now.

One big difference I have noticed is that there are a lot more aches and strains exercising now than when I was a teenager.  I don’t ever remember feeling any sort of pain when exercising when I was younger (unless I had some sort of diagnosed injury).  Now, I seem to encounter them all the time!  During the Level 1 workouts, I had mild pain in my mid to lower back when doing jumping jacks.  It was an odd pain.  I didn’t have it on day one but it showed up around days 2-8 or so.  I tried Googling a reason for this and didn’t find much of one but did find it was a common complaint among novice exercisers.  In my case, I think the pain stemmed from either a lack of leg muscles to absorb the shock of the jumps (sending it right to my back instead) or feeling stress about whether I would have the cardiovascular stamina to finish the set and subconsciously tensing my muscles during the movement.

Now 7 days into Level 2, there is no more back pain but instead my Achilles tendons are constantly sore.  I really don’t know whether I have injured something or if I am again working through some temporary pain while I build muscle strength.  Achilles tendon pain can be a sign of weak calf muscles.  According to this orthotics site, discussing the relationship between ballet and Achilles tendonitis, you can also shorten your Achilles tendons by wearing high heels too often (something I am definitely guilty of).

“The Achilles tendon, the largest tendon in the body, extends down the back of the leg to the heel and allows the dancer to rise onto pointe. Not lowering the heel completely down between relevés, ribbons that are wrapped too tightly around the ankle, and drawstrings or elastic which is too tight around the heel can all contribute to tendonitis. Symptoms include tightness, soreness, and swelling of the tendon, pain during relevé, and sometimes a slight stretching noise. Icing, stretching, and anti-inflammatory medications are recommended. While wearing high heels outside the studio may help alleviate the pain of Achilles tendonitis, prolonged wearing of high heels will contribute to it. . . .Though dancers are used to spending a lot of time on demi-pointe, it only feels natural to walk around in high heels. Over time this places additional stress on the balls of the feet and shortens the Achilles tendons.”

–“Ballet Dancers,” Foot Dynamics

I am trying more stretching and massage and wearing warm socks to bring heat to the area.  They do all seem to help.  Interestingly, the pain does not get worse while exercising and in fact tends to lessen!  The next day, especially in the morning, however, it can be hard to walk or go downstairs while the tendons (or muscles or whatever it is) get stretched back out.  I have kept up my workouts while I figure this out but I have kept my intensity level on jumps and other Achilles tendon exertions to the minimum.  Today, the pain seems to be dulling a bit so I am hoping that this is just part of the “breaking in” period.  Certainly if the pain gets worse, I will reduce my exercise and see a doctor.

I am glad there are only 13 days left in the month and looking forward to a change in routine.  But at the halfway mark, I am hopeful that I will be able to finish!

Nov 102011

With the weather turning colder, my body is ready to hibernate. I find myself wanting to eat slightly more than usual and sleep. It takes extra discipline to think about diet and exercise when nature is telling you to store up your winter reserves.

Eating Update

Yesterday, I felt like I hit the wall on my new eating plan. I was sick and tired of cutting up all those vegetables and was so ready to have my husband pick up take out for dinner on his way home. But, I managed to resist temptation and picked out a super-simple dinner of frozen cheese tortellini and some frozen broccoli. Hardly gourmet but it was sustenance!

Bacon, spinach and tomato sandwiches -- a good way to eat veggies when it is cold outside and your body tells you that you need a warm, fulfilling lunch. Add carrot sticks as a side.

The eating part of my goals is the hardest for me to sustain. I don’t necessarily mind eating vegetables but I do mind doing all the work to cut them up, cook them and then clean all those dishes afterward! This is the area in my life where I accept “help” in the form of various restaurant take-outs and frozen foods. I know cooking fresh is better for my health but it does have a cost in terms of time. I am still running my numbers but it may have a cost in terms of money as well. Some dishes are cheap to cook but some are at least as expensive as eating out. Also, when we eat out, we are a little more mindful of portions. We don’t order seconds, for example, because it would cost to do so. At home, we don’t hesitate to have seconds because they are “free.”

Thai soup from this recipe but with chicken added. (My apologies to vegans everywhere.) Who better to tell us how to combine vegetables than vegans and vegetarians?

If I ever was in a financial position where I had to cut back and I had to cook all our meals at home and they all had to be healthy and inexpensive, it would be a tough adjustment! Not impossible, but this 30-day trial is a good taste of how much more energy I would need in my life to do this.

Exercise Progress

I am starting to enjoy my exercise program and actually look forward to my 20 minute workouts now. At first, my muscles hurt so much and I was so exhausted and felt like the workout was beyond my capabilities. After sticking with it for a few days, I started to get a little stronger and a little less sore. Now 10 days in, I am far stronger than when I started and am actually ready to move on to a greater challenge in Level 2.

So far, I notice the difference in my thigh muscles the most. All of Jillian’s squats are paying off. I don’t really want to have a muscled look in my legs but the toning that I am getting has helped me feel so much stronger. From experience, I also know that when I have stronger thigh and calf muscles I reduce the strain on my knees and ankles when doing cardio workouts. I still want to stretch out my muscles a bit more and definitely need to do some heel-cord stretches (the tendon running up the back of the heel and lower leg).

I also think I am starting to get a small exercise high after working out. Rather than feeling tired after working out, I have a huge boost of energy. Interestingly, it is a slightly addictive sort of feeling.

Over the weekend I have a wonderful task to finish! I recently received a review copy of a book by one of organizing’s giants. I am halfway in and loving it so far. I will be sharing my thoughts with you on Tuesday. Hope you will find it as fascinating as I do!

Have a great weekend!

Oct 252011

Every once in a while we all have to learn something the hard way—by making a million mistakes and suffering a big fail—but in the process gaining invaluable insight. For me, this fall’s learning experience has been the “fall festival bake sale.” It has taught me lessons not only about bake sales but about work, committees and life in general.

If you are a woman, if you have children in school, or if you are involved with a charity that needs to raise money from time to time, you are at increased risk of being asked to participate in a bake sale. Now, if you are an excellent cook, you may rub your hands with excitement at the prospect or perhaps hang your head in grief knowing exactly how much effort this will require. If, like me, you are not much of a cook, the bake sale causes confusion along with a grand but unrealistic plan.

To make a long story short, my “simple” and “easy” project turned into a ridiculously lengthy project that turned out “cute” but not necessarily successful. It might be a keeper of an idea for my limited cooking ability but it definitely needs some refinement in the execution.

The original plan:

Last year’s festival offered lots of small, individually wrapped treats that sold for about $1 each. I remember moms last year bringing in lots of elegantly wrapped candy apples and the like. My plan was to take this “Monster Paws” idea from Family Fun but make it even easier (and healthy to boot) by using plain popcorn and raisins. No real cooking, just cute packaging. Cater to the health or weight-conscious crowd. Easy. Done.

The reality.

Discover that popcorn will be offered for free at the fall festival so I need to use something else. Discover that the ingredients for trail mix (yogurt-covered almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc.) are not cheap (go heavy on the less expensive organic banana chips). Discover that washing and drying disposable plastic gloves as recommended in the project instructions, is a lot more difficult than it sounds and that the drying process could take days. Discover that people have varying opinions about whether disposable plastic gloves are safe to use with food. Discover that the gloves I had were not the clear plastic type in the picture and looked unappetizing when filled with food. Discover that trying to sew your own gloves out of two layers of plastic wrap does not work. Discover that sewing one layer of plastic wrap to a sheet of paper to create gloves works but takes time. Discover that, once sewn, stuffing food down the fingertips of the “gloves” is difficult and takes time. Discover that plastic wrap breaks more easily than you imagine. Discover that this project was neither quick nor easy.

The bright side of this whole experience, however, was that it provided a good reminder of how to handle an unfamiliar situation. With lots of baking experiences ahead for me this holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas cookie exchange, etc.), I hope to use these lessons to improve my cooking and reduce my stress level.

5 Tips for Organizing Yourself in an Unfamiliar Situation (and Bake Sale!)

1) Ask the organizer to clarify the end goals of the project. In my case, it turned out that the organizers were intending to offer a variety of items and prices, from individual treats to more expensive whole pies and big plates of cookies and cupcakes. There was no need to organize my project around the most time consuming option–individually wrapped treats.

2) Clarify exactly what you are expected to do (and not do). The bake sale organizers were willing to wrap up the final products for you and seemed to prefer this so that they could maximize revenue from the sale by grouping items into more expensive sets, coordinate all the packaging to present a unified bake shop and improve the appearance of the less-well-made treats. Now, it would have been enormously helpful if this information was specified on the initial request for baked goods, but I can see how it might be difficult to word some of this on the general notice that was also going to prospective bake sale buyers.

3) Estimate your time commitment to participate and budget your time appropriately. For some reason, it never occurred to me to do a simple calculation like the following:

Minutes per treat * Quantity needed = Total time commitment

For example, if you were intending to do an elaborate decorated cookie or cupcake that would take say “just 5 minutes” per item to decorate and package and you wanted to provide 2 dozen of these, you are looking at 2 hours. Add in shopping time, baking time, interruptions due to other responsibilities, etc. and this could easily escalate to 4 or 5 hours. If you are an experienced cook, you already know this. If you are still learning, it is best to double all of your time estimates to be safe.

4) Estimate your expenses and shop early. Had I started earlier on this project, I could have shopped online and bought in bulk for my pricey trail mix ingredients. I might have also been able to find food safe gloves.

5) Do a quick test run or sample–especially if you are running behind on time. Since, in my mind, I assumed this was a super-easy project, I did not test it ahead of time. Had I taken a second just to wash and dry one of the gloves right when I decided on this project, I might have changed my mind and pursued a different packaging option. As I was working, I wasted a lot of time sewing bad prototypes instead of stopping periodically to test to make sure I was still on track. Any time you see a cute, “easy” project whether on Family Fun, Martha Stewart or someone’s blog, assume that there could have been a lot of false starts and a lot of work to create the finished product.

With regard to this bake sale specifically, here are the takeaways I should remember:

1) Contribute something flexible. Make something that can be sold individually or grouped. Cookies or cupcakes are natural candidates.

2) Don’t spend time on packaging that can’t be changed easily by someone else. Time and time again when I am participating in group situations, I find that the issues people care the very most about are issues of appearance. There is always someone who wants to dictate the final appearance. If you are not the person in charge, assume your packaging will be changed in some way.

3) Whenever possible, emphasize unique, high quality goods. The organizer of this bake sale seems to be subtly pushing people to up their cooking skills. They offered prizes for the best contributions, for example (which went to a chocolate ganache cake made by someone’s grandma and cupcakes made by a mom who is also a professional baker). Despite this, there were numerous contributions that appeared to be Pillsbury slice and bake cookies or cake mix cupcakes. Realistically, moms of school-age children may not be the prime candidates to make elaborate baked goods, particularly since they are short on time and their children may not eat them anyway. Nonetheless, there might be easy alternatives for the non-cooks among us. I could up the wow factor in my trail mix, for example by adding some unusual ingredients or flavors.

What are your bake sale tips? How would you improve on my trail mix idea? Do you see any lessons from the bake sale that translate into other areas of your life? Please share in the comments.

P.S.  In the spirit of planning ahead for Thanksgiving, you may be interested in Apartment Therapy’s 20/20 home cure – 20 days, 20 minutes per day to change your home.

Jun 162011

It’s summer time! Cookouts abound and from Memorial to Labor Day, grilling and outdoor gatherings are the fête du jour! With that, when you are invited to one of these lovely events, I have suggestions for what you should bring that will be enjoyed by most!

10 Best Things to Bring to a Summer Cookout:

1. Kid-Friendly Fare. If you are one of only a few parents in attendance of a party that is family-oriented, a kid-friendly dish like Mac ‘N Cheese or chicken nuggets are greatly appreciated–and the crazy secret is that the adults eat this too–so no worries about not having a hit on your hands.

2. Say Cheese. The Big Trend right now is beautiful mozzarella slices with tomato and basil on top of each slice–a gorgeous site to behold–and the bigger the plate and the more on it the prettier it looks! Occasionally someone will drizzle a vinaigrette over it–it holds up very well and is usually devoured immediately!

3. Adult Cupcakes. A friend made a gorgeous set of chocolate rum cupcakes complete with a liquor-infused icing—-fabulous!! A very fun juxtaposition.

4. Cocktails. It’s BYOB-what to do? Mix up a lovely big cocktail in a glass sun tea jar filled with ice. A friend recently brought “Pink Panties”. Other faves of late have been Mojitos, Margaritas—and the awesome Pomegranate Martinis… die for! If it’s a non-alcoholic event, fancy sparkling sodas from specialty stores such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods are really fun. Our local store in Ridgecrest, CA, Bottany’s Desire sells lovely sparkling imported juice beverages that are the first to go at parties!

5. Waldorf Salad. Although I’d store the lettuce leaves on a bag of ice wrapped in paper towels to keep in the sun before serving. 🙂 The lovely mayo dressing actually preserves in the sun–it’s a really fun combination of apples and dried fruits–occasionally add tuna or cooked chopped chicken—lovely, fresh, salty and sweet! Wonderful, wonderful side dish! (P.S. from Anne. If you don’t know what Waldorf Salad is, like me, there is a recipe here. Also, while you always have to be careful with mayonnaise dishes in the sun, particularly if you are adding something like chicken to it, Ruth is right that commercially-prepared mayonnaise is relatively safe. Read more about mayonnaise here.)

6. Ambrosia. In the spirit of milk-based items, my Darling Husband’s favorite side dish anywhere is Ambrosia! Aptly named, it’s a sweet dish with a whipped and/or sour cream base–depending on which recipe you use–we prefer low-fat Cool Whip with dry pistachio pudding mix and canned fruit cocktail. Super easy to make–serve super cold. Delish! Kids and adults alike love this refreshing side/desert.

7.  Crockpots. Crockpots do show up—filled with wonderful items! A gorgeous baked bean or chili dish is always fabulous–esp. if hot dogs are on the grill–making them into chili dogs is THE BEST! Also, meatballs–super easy and always loved–a recent friend did a BBQ/Marinara sauce that was lovely! Or even making them in a cream sauce–yums!

8.  Pigs in a Blanket. Even the Ritz Carlton can’t get rid of this appetizer offering! Cocktail weenies wrapped in dough. Always a hit throughout the ages!!

9. Fruit and Veggie Tray. Yes—a veggie tray–or fruit and veggie tray. And don’t just stick to celery and carrots. People LOVE sliced peppers, mushrooms, green onions are hot right now–asparagus. The more variety, the faster it will disappear. Obviously melons, grapes and cherries are always a picnic favorite too!

10. Trifle. A trifle will always be loved—for 4th of July it’s red, white and blue baby! I like mine with angel food cake, vanilla pudding, whipped cream and then strawberries and blueberries layered one after the other after the other….A chocolate version is to die for as well, with a chocolate bundt cake crumbled between chocolate pudding, whipped cream and even crumbled Oreos. Yummo, as my Aussie friends say!

Presentation is everything! Some of the best money I’ve spent has been on items to bring things to events. A divided veggie and dip holder is expensive–but worth it’s weight in gold! A carry-all that holds a 9×13 glass covered baking dish that comes with a hot and cold pack is a staple. We received ours as a wedding present 13 years ago, and I use it all of the time. My trifle dish always looks amazing–and everyone’s selling them these days! Love it!! If it looks good, chances are that’s the thing people will go to over and over and over….

With that note–what to not bring to a cookout:

1. Store-bought veggie trays. If you do bring a store-bought veggie tray–make sure everything looks REALLY fresh—and ideally if you have a few seconds (which sometimes I admit even I don’t)–plate it on your own wares! It just pops more!

2. Spinach artichoke dip. I’m SO OVER right now the spinach artichoke dip. I think it’s really fattening and so NOT in the food of the 2010 decade! It SCREAMS the ’90s to me!

3. Bad potato salad. Yes–it’s bland and fattening and tastes of NOTHING! We’re WAY better off without it! Skip the calories, and if I do use those calories–make them worth my while, baby!

4.  Cheap versions of food the host is already preparing. Okay– a friend did this years ago—20 Big Macs from McDonald’s. And this was at a cookout where we were making and grilling gourmet burgers—just don’t bring anything at all! OY! (But guess what—they all got eaten–but not by me!)

5.  Outdated sushi.  If you’re going to do sushi–super super cool! BUT–double check the dates or order rolls fresh from a really reputable restaurant–otherwise it’s a quick trip to the ER with food poisoning. (After writing this I’m beginning to think I’ve almost seen it all here!)

6. Bland Soup. If it’s a hot day, espcially a hot day–if you’re bringing a hot dish–make it spicy or have some definitive taste. This is NOT the place for chicken soup! As seen on a Top Chef cookoff challenge…ugh! They could have easily made it into a great chicken tortilla soup and won over the judges…but not so much with plain soup….save those for winter!!

7. Spam. Do not bring canned meat to a cookout–or a product with that in use. Please. Enough said!

8. Bad Dessert. I have to include this from “Roland’s Cookout Rules“–which hilariously yet truthfully includes:
“If u just started baking, you are not allowed to bring any desserts.”

9. New recipes. Please try them first! (Not that I’m not guilty of this myself.) There are so many iffies….and really, we all just want our food to shine!!

10.  A Bad Attitude. The WORST thing to bring to a cookout is a stressed-out, negative person. STAY HOME!! Don’t just sit in a corner and sulk. I have no time and tolerance for that–and trust me, neither does the host/hostess. Fuggeddaboudit!

I am so excited to see what suggestions and feedback our readers have for cookouts! Please respond–we read every response and I anxiously await new ideas and feedback on my ideas. Bon Appetit!

From Anne:

Even a novice cook can bring a nice offering to a potluck. Below are some of the winners I was able to produce with very minimal effort or cooking talent.

Costco frozen spanikopita triangles (cooked, of course) with a bowl of kalamata olives. So easy to make and I took home only crumbs from this tray.

I once made a shrimp platter that looked gorgeous, was healthy and every last bit was eaten. I bought a bag of frozen (shell-on) shrimp, boiled them at home and peeled them, leaving the tails on. To serve, use two round Pyrex glass bowls, one large and one small. Put the small bowl inside the large bowl and fill the gap between the two bowls with crushed ice. Put the peeled shrimp on the ice and fill the smaller bowl with cocktail sauce. Wish I could find the picture from this one! So easy!

Vegan banana macaroons a.k.a. 'Bananaroonies.' While vegan and other 'weird health food' as my husband calls it, is a big risk at a potluck, these were well-received and especially appreciated by other vegetarians we didn't know would be in attendance.

Dulce de leche no-bake cheesecake. Just tried this recipe from the back of the can for Nestle Dulce de Leche for my daughter's Spanish language enrichment fiesta. Easy, creamy, cool and great that it is no-bake!

Update: 2012 Cookout Trends

Dec 232010

Looking for a great holiday gift for a neighbor or friend or a wonderful Christmas morning breakfast treat. I have just the thing!  A lovely, sweet-but-not-too-sweet cranberry bread.

We discovered this recipe over Thanksgiving.  We were supposed to be making a “cranberry chutney” for my daughter’s class Thanksgiving project but since none of us were that interested in eating the finished chutney we wanted to make something else.  We flipped over the bag of Ocean Spray cranberries and found this wonderful recipe for “Classic Cranberry Nut Bread.”

We just happened to also need to use up a large quantity of mandarin oranges and we had a ton of almonds on hand so it was perfect.

Cranberry orange can be a difficult flavor.  If the orange is too bitter (it can be surprisingly hard to find a sweet orange at the grocery store), our family generally dislikes the taste.  The milder flavor of the mandarin oranges was perfect for us.

It takes a little bit of work to get all the ingredients prepped.  You have to cut up the fresh cranberries (which I learned are white inside with small seeds!) into little pieces.  Since we were using fresh oranges, we also had a lot of squeezing to do to get the juice out and the orange peel grated.

The end result, however, is so heavenly!  You must try this!  My husband, after tasting it the first time said, “You should make this every weekend!”  Alas, it will be more like once a month but this is a new classic at our house.  Enjoy!

Recipe from Ocean Spray Cranberries (my modifications in italics)


2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup orange juice (we used mandarin oranges and squeezed our own juice)
1 tablespoon grated orange peel (again, we used the mandarin orange peel)
2 tablespoons shortening (I don’t remember adding this so I am not sure if I put this in or not.  If I did I probably used butter.)
1 egg, well beaten
1 1/2 cups Ocean Spray® Fresh or Frozen Cranberries, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I used sliced almonds.)


Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

Mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in orange juice, orange peel, shortening and egg. Mix until well blended. Stir in cranberries and nuts. Spread evenly in loaf pan. *Sprinkle top with additional sliced almonds.

Bake for 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Remove from pan; cool completely. Wrap and store overnight. Makes 1 loaf (16 slices).

Dec 232010

Today, I will continue my quick, lighthearted holiday posts so that those who are already overtaxed by holiday responsibilities can relax and be entertained for a bit.

Last weekend, I attended a neighborhood holiday cookie and ornament party.  As I was rushing about last-minute trying to figure out what to make, I remembered a silly recipe I first heard about in junior high.

I was on a committee with two other girls to plan a class potluck holiday party.  We went around asking everyone in the class what they were going to bring.  One girl (a sweet friend) indicated that she would bring a dessert consisting of cornflakes, marshmallows and red hot candies.  As we raised our eyebrows at this interesting confection, she assured us, “It’s really good.”  As we did the planning we snickered as we wrote down “cornflake thing”  for one of the desserts.  In the end, the girl brought something else so we never got to taste the cornflake dessert.

I was reminded of this interesting dessert when someone on Twitter (unfortunately, can’t remember who) recently posted a similar recipe.  “I have to bring this.” I thought.  If nothing else, it will be good for a laugh.

There are a ton of recipes out there for this luscious dessert.  Here is one from Kellogg’s, the makers of Corn Flakes cereal.  The basic ingredients are simple, butter, marshmallows, vanilla extract, green food coloring, Corn Flakes and red hot candies.  You melt the butter, melt the marshmallows and add green food coloring and vanilla extract.  You then add Corn Flakes to make a Rice Krispie treat like dessert.

The cornflake treats in progress. Yum?

The hard part is getting the hot, sticky mix out of the pan and forming it into circular wreaths before it hardens.  If you are really good (or have an extra pair of hands to help you) you can manage to form the wreaths and stick the red hots on the molten mix so that they will stay put as the wreath cools.  If you are more of a novice (like me) you will barely be able to get the wreaths formed before the mixture cools and you will need to stick on the red hots either by remelting the butter/marshmallow remnants in the pan, dipping the red hots in and sticking them to each wreath or you can also use vanilla icing (suggested in the Kellogg’s recipe).

They come together quickly and I let them harden up a bit in the fridge before putting them on a plate for the party.   They were bright and cheery looking!  The cornflake texture and shape made them look like holly wreaths.

The finished cornflake holly wreaths.

At the party, all the neighbors brought wonderful, elegant, homemade cookies, mostly in chocolate.  I set down my bright green and red cookies among the other dishes and thought they were already having the desired hilarity effect.

Later on in the party, the cookie judging commenced.  There were several categories of judging for the cookies.  To our amazement, we won in the “best decorated” category.

As we were leaving the party, we filled up a little treat box taking home one of each cookie.  When it came time to take ours home, I discovered that these wreath cookies are a little heat sensitive.  Sitting out for an hour or so, they had started to melt just a bit so that the stacked cookies were becoming one big sticky blob!  I have no idea how everyone else managed to taste one (or if they even did!).  If you are going to make these yourself, definitely don’t stack them or put them in individual plastic treat bags.

When we got home, we finally tasted one ourselves.  It tastes an awful lot like a Rice Krispie treat.  The red hots were a bit crunchy and would have been better if they were more like a jelly bean in texture.

But overall, it was cute and it was (literally) a winner!