Friday, December 31, 2010

My Top Five Frugal Successes of 2010

It's the last day of 2010 and I've been taking some time to reflect on the year's many joys and challenges. A lot of things have happened in our family this year (many of them too personal to share on this blog). What I *can* share are some of the frugal changes we made over the course of the year that have been the most satisfying to me.

1. Finally ditching cable...for good.
This one seems like a total no-brainer; after all it's practically Frugality 101. We canceled our cable service in January. For a family that previously lived without a TV for a couple of years, I don't know how we ever managed to get sucked into cable, but we did. We had it for about seven years, and in hindsight it's definitely one of those "what were we thinking?" situations. Neither my husband or I are big TV watchers in the first place. We discovered after we canceled our cable service that a simple pair of rabbit ears given to us by a neighbour allows us to receive the 3 or 4 channels we most commonly watch. Since we're in Canada, we don't have access to Hulu; however the netflix streaming service is now available in Canada and if we wanted to spend $7.99 a month we could stream it through my boys' Playstation 3 system. Right now we've been very content to watch shows on DVD from the library (we're fortunate that our library has an extensive DVD collection). The only thing I've really missed is being able to watch baseball games during the summer (we listened to them on the radio instead).

We had our phone, internet, and cable services bundled through a single provider, so when we canceled cable, we reassessed our phone service and switched to a less expensive package (this was a new package that wasn't available when we first signed on with our current provider). These changes allowed us to cut our bill in half, from $162 and change a month down to just over $82. That means we saved $960 over the course of the year. I'm so pleased we made this change, but really wish we'd done it a lot sooner (or better yet, never succumbed to the lure of cable in the first place).

2. Switching to a cash system for groceries and miscellaneous spending.
I've always paid fairly close attention to how much we spend and allocated specific amounts for each item in our budget. Most of our bills are paid by automatic withdrawal, so they're pretty easy to keep track of. The two categories in our budget that were the most difficult to keep a handle on were groceries and miscellaneous spending (which for us includes everything from personal care to general household needs, gifts and haircuts). We finally decided to switch to a cash system for these two categories, and it's worked out beautifully. It's so much easier to track how much we've spent and how much we have left for the rest of the month. I simply put the designated amounts of money into envelopes at the beginning of each month, and once it's gone, it's gone (if there's any left at the end of the month, I roll it over into next month's envelope). This method has really helped us stay true to our designated budget without spending a lot of time trying to track our purchases.

3. Switching to reusable feminine hygiene products.
This is a change I had been meaning to make for a few years now. I tried the Keeper several years ago, and I really *wanted* to like it, but it just didn't work out for me (it was uncomfortable to wear and I had some kind of reaction to it). I planned to sew some cloth pads and never quite got around to it (my bottomless mending pile has a lot to do with that). I definitely didn't want to spend the amount of money required to purchase pre-made cloth pads, but I'd had enough of purchasing disposable products (not to mention all the unnecessary waste they create). I finally came up with a very simple, no-sew solution that took me all of five minutes. It's worked well for me for several months now. I'll share more details in a future post.

4. Learning how to make my own homemade deodorant.
Not only is this a money-saver, it's very satisfying to find an all-natural solution that actually works! My husband and I have been using this recipe since the spring and we both love it. I add a few drops each of tea tree and peppermint essential oil for extra anti-microbial coverage and a fresh, clean scent. This discovery has blossomed into an interest in making more of my own personal care products, and a few weeks ago I discovered the awesome blog Since then I have enjoyed making Mocha-Frappuccino face masks and Winter Face Scrub and am itching to experiment with many more concoctions in the new year.

5. Perfecting my homemade yogurt and granola recipes.
I definitely know my way around the kitchen and generally have no trouble creating a wide variety of tasty foodstuffs from scratch. The perfect yogurt and granola recipes seemed to have eluded me for years, though. This year I finally got them both right! I can now consistently turn out a vanilla yogurt that my family loves, and have achieved what I consider to be "granola perfection" - flavourful, crunchy, but not too sweet (recipe here).

What were your biggest frugal successes in 2010?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Year End Clothing Budget Report

I can't quite believe that Christmas is over for another year. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday! I guess it's time for me to ease back into my blogging routine. With just a couple of days left in the year, I wanted to make sure to squeeze in my final clothing budget report for 2010. In my mid-year update, I shared that we had spent a total of $99.54 on clothing for the first half of the year. Since then, I picked up a number of items at yard sales in July and August:

$1.00 for a black button down shirt for me
$2.00 for New Balance runners for hubby
$3.50 for 2 T-shirts, 1 long sleeve T and a denim stretch jacket for me
$0.50 for a long sleeve thermal undershirt for hubby
$1.00 for a short sleeve dress shirt for hubby
$3.00 for a long sleeve T, short sleeved summer blouse and black skirt for me
$5.00 for a Nike jacket

The total for these yard sale purchases was $16.00 for 12 items.

In late summer and early fall we hit several sale days at local thrift stores. A detailed report of our purchases at the Salvation Army and Value Village 50% off days is here. My boys needed a lot of new clothes so we ended up buying a lot - 32 items for $105.50. We also hit up Walmart to stock up on socks and underwear to the tune of $55.59.

After we completed those shopping trips, we had most of what we needed to meet our clothing needs until next spring. We checked out another 50% off day at Value Village in November, which I reported on here. We purchased 8 items for a total of $31.12 that day. I also picked up a couple of things at fall yard and rummage sales:

$2.00 for 2 pairs of running shoes for the boys
$1.00 for a pair of dockers-style pants for hubby
$1.00 for a long sleeved dress shirt for hubby

Our final purchase was a pair of winter gloves for my younger son at a local surplus store for $4.50.

That brings our total for the second half of the year to $216.71 - over twice what we spent the first half of the year! That is fairly typical for us I think, as we seem to need more items for the fall and winter months.  Just over a quarter of this total was for socks and underwear alone. It always amazes me how much undergarments can eat into our clothing budget!

Our grand total for the year was $316.25 or $79.06 per person. I had guesstimated that we spend about $300 a year on clothes (this is the first year I've kept such detailed records on our clothing purchases) so it looks like my impression was pretty accurate.

How about you? How much does your family spend a year on clothing? Were you over or under your budget for the year?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Two Last Minute Gifts from the Kitchen

It's only four days left until the big day! If you're still looking for a couple of gift ideas to "fill in around the edges", here are two of my tried-and-true, super simple food gifts. Despite the fact that they are some of the easiest treats I make, they are always received with delight.

1. Cracker Toffee
(pictured above)

1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 sleeve soda crackers
2 cups semi sweet or milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400F. Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. Lay the soda crackers over the top, covering the surface completely. In a medium saucepan, bring butter and brown sugar to a boil. Boil for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture becomes thick and toffee-like..Pour mixture over crackers and spread evenly over top. Bake in oven for 5 minutes. Be VERY careful removing from the oven, the sugar mixture will be extremely hot and bubbly. As it starts to cool down, you may need to rearrange the crackers back into their original position with a fork as they have a tendency to float around in the bubbling toffee mixture Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top and let stand about 5 minutes until the chips have melted. Spread the melted chocolate evenly over the top. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled (at least 2-3 hours, overnight is ideal). Remove parchment paper and break into pieces. This keeps well for a few days in the fridge and can be frozen if you happen to make it further in advance.

2. Chocolate Barks

Barks are about the simplest candy to make but they really seem to impress people! You can do just about any combination of chocolate and "additions" that strikes your fancy.

Basic bark formula:
2-3 cups chocolate chips (semi sweet, milk, or white)
1- 1 1/2 cups additions

Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. In double boiler or microwave, melt chocolate. Stir in "additions" and spread in a thin layer on jelly roll pan (usually it won't cover the entire surface). Chill in refrigerator until solid, then break into pieces.

Some of my favourite combinations:
-white chocolate with crushed candy cane
-white chocolate with dried cranberries and pistachios or pumpkin seeds
-semi sweet chocolate with raisins and peanuts
-semi sweet chocolate with marshmallows and peanuts ("rocky road" bark)

Other possibilities:
-white chocolate with crushed Oreos ("cookies and cream" bark)
-milk chocolate with toffee bits and almonds

You can drizzle a contrasting colour of chocolate over top of the bark once it's chilled, then re-chill until the drizzle hardens. Store in the fridge or freezer until ready to give.

This is a fun and easy one to do with the kids, and they will enjoy coming up with their own combinations!

I'm going to be taking a bit of a blogging break over the holidays, so expect to see me back sometime next week.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

RECIPE: Spicy Peanut and Tomato Soup

With less than two weeks to go until Christmas, most of us have schedules that are jam-packed and not a lot of time to cook dinner. This is when I resort to my quickest, easiest recipes. This simple soup is very easy to prepare and is also something a bit "off the beaten path" with its African-style blend of curry, tomatoes and peanut butter. This is one of my family's favourite soups and it goes together in a flash. If you don't have any sweet potatoes on hand, just add more carrot. It will still be fabulous!

1 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, grated
1 sweet potato, peeled and grated
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock (you can use water if you don't have any stock)
1 cup crushed tomatoes
3/4 cup peanut butter
1 tsp curry powder
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

chopped peanuts and green onions for garnish (optional)

In a large saucepan, saute the garlic, onion, grated carrot and sweet potato in oil until tender. Add stock, tomatoes, peanut butter,curry powder and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 10-15 minutes. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with chopped peanuts and green onions, if desired. Serves 4.

I shared this recipe at Tasty Tuesday.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #19

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now!

Breakfasts: banana chocolate chip muffins, cornbread with jam, Christmas granola, French toast, banana bread

Lunches: pasta salad with sweet peppers, leftovers, pizza, peanut butter toast


Monday: Spicy Peanut Soup, cornbread

Tuesday: Smothered meatballs, rice, broccoli, carrots

Wednesday: Ham and cheese egg puff

Thursday: Baked pasta, peas

Friday: Leftover buffet

Saturday: Black bean chili

Sunday: Barbecued pork chops with spicy rub, roasted root vegetables

I'll be posting the recipes for most of these dishes in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

For more great meal ideas, head over to Menu Plan Monday at 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Homemade granola is just about one of my favourite things to make (and eat!). It is one of those foods that is made of such simple ingredients, you don't think it can be anything special. But some kind of magical kitchen synergy happens during the granola preparation process and the end product is both delicious and nourishing.

I decided I would embellish my basic granola recipe to make a holiday version by using dried cranberries in place of the raisins, and raw pumpkin seeds instead of my usual half sunflower seed/half pumpkin seed blend. This gives the granola a nice natural red-and-green effect, perfect for Christmas. You could use pistachios instead of the pumpkin seeds if you prefer, for another "green" option.

This is a great food gift when you're looking for something healthy to give that will still "wow" the recipient!

4 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup coconut
1 cup pumpkin seeds or pistachios
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup coconut oil, olive oil or butter (or a combination of any of those!)
1 cup dried cranberries

In a large mixing bowl, combine the oats, coconut, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon and ginger. In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, honey and oil. Heat gently and stir until thoroughly combined. Pour honey mixture over oat mixture and stir until oats are evenly coated. Spread on a rimmed cookie sheet and bake at 300F for 30 minutes or until golden, stirring every 10 minutes. Let cool, then stir in cranberries.

Looking for more food gift ideas?
Candied Peanuts
Puppy Chow (for people, not pets!)
How to make a "fancy" loaf of bread for gifting
What to give with a loaf of bread

I shared this recipe at Tasty Tuesday and Friday Favorites.

Mountain Rose Herbs. A herbs, health and harmony c 
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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #18

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now! 

Once again,  I don't have a lot of links to share this week - we managed to have a few tried-and-true favourites that I haven't posted here yet, along with a couple of new recipes I'm still tweaking. I will have a lot of recipes to share in the new year! 

Breakfasts: cornbread with jam, Christmas Granola (recipe coming this week!), blueberry pancakes, banana chocolate chip muffins

Lunches: pizza, leftovers, peanut butter toast


Monday: Lentil soup and cornbread

Tuesday: Creamy Tuna Pasta with Peas and Carrots

Wednesday: Ham and Cheese Egg Puff

Thursday: Cheesy Mac & Beef Skillet

Friday: Lentil burgers and oven fries 

Saturday: Black bean & sausage chili

Sunday: Indian spiced honey garlic chicken, spicy potatoes and peas, whole wheat vegetable roti, coconut cream pie

Thursday, December 2, 2010

GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN: What to Give with Your Loaf of Bread

When I wrote my post on how to make fancy loaves of bread for gift giving, I promised to do a follow-up post with some ideas on what you could give along with the bread to make a satisfying gift basket.

Bread is such a versatile food gift; you can develop a number of different themed gift baskets around a gorgeous loaf of homemade bread!

My favourite is to make a "breakfast basket" with honey butter and homemade jams (this cran-raspberry jam is perfect for Christmas gifts) alongside the bread. You could tuck in some fancy teas, coffees, or hot chocolate mixes as well. To make honey butter, beat 1/4 cup honey and 1/2 cup butter together with a hand mixer until light and fluffy and pack into a pretty glass jar.

Another option is to do a "soup and salad" basket. This gift would include a bean soup mix (there are many different variations of this gift in a jar, there is a good basic recipe here) and some homemade salad dressing or some bottles of herb vinegar and olive oil. I did a variation on this and did an "Everything From Soup to Nuts" basket for my dad for his birthday which he loved. It had a loaf of bread, a lentil soup mix and a tin of candied peanuts.

For a slightly different spin on this, create a "pasta dinner in a basket" and include a jar of homemade tomato sauce (or a good quality purchased one), a homemade salad dressing or the oil and vinegar as mentioned above, a bag of spaghetti, and a jar of Parmesan cheese.

Any other ideas? What do you love to give with a loaf of bread?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Care to Join Me on My "Winter Walk Challenge"?

It's December 1st, and I'm forced to admit I've been a bit sloth-like lately. During the warmer months I spend a lot of time outdoors, puttering around in the garden, riding my bike, hiking local trails and walking "the stairs" (this huge set of metal outdoor stairs near where I live, there are 165 steps I think). So I have no problem keeping fit from roughly the beginning of April to the end of September.

Once the colder, darker days roll around, it's a different story, though. I'm very much a homebody to begin with, and once the temperature dips below a certain level, I'm not so inclined to go outside unless I really, really, have to. Since I homeschool my two boys (who are now old enough to go out and about in the neighbourhood on their own) I can get away with barely leaving the house for days at a stretch. In short, by mid-winter I can start to feel a bit like Sandra Bullock in The Net. No so great for my mental *or* physical health!

Oh, and did I mention how much I hate to exercise indoors? Forget the treadmill or exercise bike - I'm bored in about 86 seconds flat. So I'm determined that things will be different this winter, and I've come up with a plan! A simple plan, but a plan nonetheless. Here it is: I'm going to commit to getting outside and walking for at least 30-45 minutes EVERY DAY from now until March 31st. No, that's not an earth-shattering idea, but I think making it a daily thing is the key (if I say 3-4 times a week, I'll always say that I'll do it tomorrow ::grin::) I'm also going to plan on doing 15-30 minutes of strengthening and stretching work when I get back from my walk each day.

In addition, I'm going to be attending a 90 minute Bikram Yoga class 5 times a month until the end of March (I bought a 20 class package for only $45 through Groupon - amazing deal!) I'm even going to ride my bike to the classes, since the studio is only 5 km from my house.

So, that's my winter fitness plan. I will post an update at the end of each month to let you know how I'm doing. I actually started at the beginning of this week, so I've got a couple days behind me already. The weather's pretty dreadful today (really overcast and rainy) so this will be an early test of my resolve to stick to the plan!

Anyone else care to join me in the Winter Walk Challenge?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Make It From Scratch: Sweetened Condensed Milk

Now that holiday baking season is in full swing, I thought I would share a recipe for making your own sweetened condensed milk. I have a few recipes that call for this product, and it can get expensive even if you buy a store brand!

Fortunately, it's quick and easy to make your own (for a fraction of the cost). Here's how:

1 cup instant skim milk powder
2/3 cup sugar
3 tbsp butter
1/3 cup boiling water

In a medium-sized heatproof bowl, combine the milk powder, sugar and butter. Carefully add the boiling water and beat with an electric mixer or whisk until smooth. I usually let this cool for a couple of hours in the fridge before using.

Two of my favourite ways to use sweetened condensed milk are in these Neapolitan Coconut Strips and Magic Cookie Bars. How do you like to use it?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #17

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now! 

I don't have a lot of links to share this week - as I was typing this out I realized we had eaten mostly recipes that aren't on the blog yet! Rest assured, they will be coming soon :)

Breakfasts: baked oatmeal, pumpkin spice muffins (subbed pumpkin puree for bananas in this recipe, skipped the choc chips and added cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg) , bagels with peanut butter, morning glory muffins, waffles

Lunches: pizza, perogies, leftovers, grilled cheese


Monday: Potato, cheddar and bacon soup, spinach and clementine salad with orange vinaigrette

Tuesday: Sausage and apple saute, rice, green beans

Wednesday: Lentil Burgers and Oven Fries

Thursday: Beef & Spinach Burritos

Friday: Macaroni and Cheese with Ham & Peas (added cubed ham and frozen peas to my basic mac and cheese recipe)

Saturday: "Breakfast for Dinner" - scrambled eggs, bacon, hash brown potatoes, toasted bagels

Sunday: Pork and Apple Stew, baked rice pudding

Snacks & Sides: apples, grapes, clementines, popcorn

For more great meal ideas, head over to Menu Plan Monday at

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Making the Most of...Roast Turkey

Although I won't be roasting a turkey until Christmas Day, I know many of you in the U.S. have a leftover turkey stashed in your fridge right now! A whole turkey is one of the best values as far as animal proteins go, provided you make use of every bit of it.

Here's what I do with my leftover roast turkey:

1. Carve as much meat off the bones as possible and cube it into small bite-size chunks. I pack this in 2-cup portions into Ziploc bags and freeze.

2. Freeze any leftover gravy in meal-sized portions (about 3/4 to 1 cup or so) to keep on hand for serving with pot pies.

3. Make stock: 

After I've taken as much meat as I can off the carcass, I put it in my stock pot and cover with water, breaking up the carcass a bit so I can get the whole thing in there (if you still have the turkey neck and giblets, they can go in there, too). I then cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Once it starts to boil, I skim off any foamy stuff that comes to the surface, then reduce the heat to a simmer and let it cook for 2-3 hours, adding water as needed to keep the pot at least 2/3 full.

I then cool the stock and strain it to remove any solid bits. I pour this into sour cream or yogurt containers to freeze (make sure you don't fill the containers right to the top as the liquid will expand when it freezes). You can also freeze stock in ice cube trays, then pop out the cubes and pack into Ziploc bags for when you just need a small amount of stock.

Now, what to do with all that turkey and stock? The stock can be used in any recipe that calls for chicken stock. A few of my favourite ways to use leftover turkey:

What are your favourite ways to use leftover turkey?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Frugal, Festive & Reusable Advent Calendar Ideas

I know all of my American readers are focused on Thanksgiving right now (you guys can bookmark this post for later) but since I'm Canadian and I had my Thanksgiving six weeks ago, I'm busy getting ready for the big Christmas Countdown.

Even though my boys have hit the advanced ages of 11 and 13, they still love to keep track of how much time is left until the Big Day arrives. Perhaps their enthusiasm has something to do with the fact that our two reusable Advent calendars have become an integral part of our holiday celebrations (as well as centerpieces of our holiday decor).

One of our most cherished Christmas decorations is the Advent Quilt a close friend of mine made for us back when our kids were tiny little things.

As you can see, it's a Christmas tree, and (not as easy to see in the photo) under the tree are presents with little numbered pockets. Each pocket contains an ornament to hang on the tree. The pocket for the 24th has the angel to hang on the top of the tree on Christmas Eve (you can see her peeking out of the pocket in the bottom right hand corner). Not only is this a beautiful keepsake, it's totally reusable from one year to the next - which means even if the beginning of Advent sneaks up on me and I'm totally unprepared, we always have one calendar that's ready to go!

Our second Advent Calendar is one that my mom purchased for us several years ago. It has a fabric pocket for each day that is large enough to hold either edible treats or a small gift (like a keychain, marbles, or a small action figure).

One year when we had a super-tight (i.e. almost nonexistent) budget for Christmas, I filled this with scraps of coloured paper on which I'd written out a special holiday-related activity for each day (things like "bake sugar cookies", "watch Frosty the Snowman together" or "go see the holiday display downtown"). Another year I put a goofy Christmas joke in each pocket. This type of calendar lends itself to lots of different possibilities!

There are tons of other great ideas for creating your own Advent calendars out in the blogosphere as well. Here are a few I've found that could be done easily with little to no cost:

"Big Box" Advent Calendar at Mod Podge Rocks
 You could use old match boxes, jewelry boxes, or make your boxes from cereal boxes

Cookie Sheet Advent Calendar at Matt and Shari
This is a clever design and you could easily adapt it to use items you've got on hand (if you have a beat up cookie sheet that's ready to be retired, you could paint it and use it to make one of these).

String of Lights Advent Calendar at Elsie Marley
You could felt some worn out pieces of wool clothing if you don't have enough scraps of felt on hand to make this. So cute and clever!

Do you have a favourite reusable Advent calendar? Please share a link if you've got one.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Do You *Really* Need That Deal?

This Friday will kick off the official start of the pre-Christmas buying frenzy here in North America. During this period of "unbeatable deals", it's easy to get caught up in the hype and end up buying (and spending) much more than you'd planned. A bargain isn't a bargain if you (or the person you gifted it to) didn't really need or want it to begin with!

With all those tempting ads out there, how can you shop smart while cruising the deals?

I know that for most of us, when we start gift shopping we tend to let down our guard a little more and perhaps spend more than we usually would. Often, we don't have well-established criteria in mind when purchasing gifts, we just know we need something for so-and-so on our list. When we get desperate, we just grab the first thing we see that might fit the bill, hoping it will work out okay.

This is why it's so important to have a plan *before* you start shopping the sales.

Here's how I handle my Christmas gift shopping:

1. I take a few sheets of paper and write down each person on my gift list. I only write 4 names per page, leaving plenty of space for brainstorming potential gifts.

2. I cruise through my gift cupboard to see what I have that might be appropriate for a particular person (often I've already added items to the cupboard with a specific recipient in mind). I record any gifts I already have on hand on my sheets.

3. I then fill in any additional homemade gifts I have planned for each person (food baskets, knitted items, etc.)

4. I then look to see where I have "gift gaps". There may be some people for whom I already have a complete or nearly complete gift, and others for whom I have little to nothing. I use the extra space I have left on my sheets to brainstorm potential gifts to fill in these gaps. If I can't think of anything specific offhand, I may jot down the person's interests (e.g. reading, cooking, knitting) to help inspire me towards finding an appropriate gift. I also consider whether someone would appreciate a gift of my time or talent, or a charitable donation, more than a material item (I don't want to give something that will just end up in the trash or a donation pile!)

5. I now review the whole list to see how many gifts I still need and how much money I have in my gift budget. I'll then allocate it towards specific gifts. Now I know exactly who I need to buy for, what type of gift they will like and how much I have to spend on that gift.

6. NOW it's finally time for me to start looking for deals. I have a firm plan in place and know what types of items I'm looking for. Because my list is very specific, I will know exactly when I'm done shopping. And since I've allocated specific dollar amounts towards each purchase, I won't end up spending too much on one gift and have no money left to buy a gift for another person on my list.

By following this basic process, I end up with exactly the gifts I need, without buying anything I will regret or overspending. And that goes a long way towards making the holidays a lot more relaxed and enjoyable!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #16

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now! 
Breakfasts: toasted bagels with peanut butter, baked oatmeal, pumpkin spice muffins (subbed pumpkin puree for bananas in this recipe, skipped the choc chips and added cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg), blueberry clafouti

Lunches: pizza, perogies, sandwiches (peanut butter, tuna), peanut butter toast


Monday: Leftover turkey croquettes and baked ham, mashed potatoes, peas

Tuesday: Lentil soup and cornbread

Wednesday: Tex-Mex Shepherd's Pie

Thursday: Macaroni & Cheese with Ham and Peas

Friday: Leftover Buffet

Saturday: Toad-in-the-Hole

Sunday: Turkey Pot Pie, mashed potatoes, gravy

Snacks & Sides: apples, clementines, grapes, applesauce (homemade)

For more great meal ideas, check out Menu Plan Monday at

Friday, November 19, 2010

Seven Natural (and Cheap!) Ways to Calm a Cold

I've been planning on writing this post for a while, since we're headed into the heart of cold and flu season. Now that I've actually succumbed to a cold myself (after a crazy-busy week last week that pushed me a little further than I wanted to go) it seems appropriate that I get around to sharing my favourite low-cost ways to ease discomfort and promote healing when you've got a bad case of the sniffles.

1. Steam inhalation
A steam inhalation helps to loosen congestion. To prepare one, *carefully* pour boiling water into a heat-proof glass or ceramic bowl. Add 3-5 drops of peppermint or eucalyptus essential oil (or use a combination of both). Place a towel over your head to form a tent and lean over the bowl (be careful not to get too close or you could scald yourself) Remain under the tent for 5-10 minutes, breathing as deeply as possible.

2. Peppermint tea
Not only is mint tea my favourite herbal tea, it's purported to be one of the best herbs for treating a cold. Not only that, if you grow your own, it's also a totally free remedy! Using fresh mint is ideal (mine is still happily growing away in my garden even after repeated frosts); dried will do if that's all you have available. To make fresh mint tea, place several good sized sprigs of mint in your teapot and add boiling water to fill it. Let steep about 10 minutes before pouring.

3. Honey and Thyme Cough Syrup
This homemade cough syrup is simple to prepare and I've found it to be very effective. Pour 1/2 cup of boiling water over 1 tbsp dried thyme. Cover and steep for 20 minutes. Strain into a small saucepan and add 1/4 cup honey. Heat gently until the honey dissolves completely. Cool. Store in a glass jar in the fridge. Take 1 tbsp as often as needed. (Note: honey should NOT be given to children under age one due to the risk of infant botulism).

4. The "Cold Sock Treatment"
A friend turned me onto this a while ago. I know it sounds totally weird, but I have to say that it worked amazingly well for me one night when I was brutally congested and decided to give it a shot.! I had an incredibly restful sleep and was about 95% less congested in the morning. Also, it wasn't nearly as unpleasant as I expected it to be (the thought of putting on cold, wet socks when I felt like crap was not especially appealing). All you need is a pair of cotton socks and a pair of wool socks. The complete instructions can be found here, and you can read more about the theory behind it here. It's recommended that you do this treatment three nights in a row for maximum effectiveness.

5. The Thymus Thump
This is an energy medicine technique that stimulates the immune system. It's very simple and can be repeated multiple times per day.

6. Acupressure
Acupressure can be used both to relieve cold symptoms and to help stimulate the immune system. You can find instructions for acupressure techniques for cold and flu symptoms here.

7. Sleep!
Sleep is the most obvious, and often the most overlooked natural remedy for illnesses. When you get sick, your body's trying to tell you something - it's time to rest! Do everything you can to get as much sleep as possible (that means napping during the day plus a good sleep at night). If you have young children, find someone to watch them for you for an hour or two while you rest. You'll likely get over your cold much faster.

Do you have a favourite, thrifty cold treatment that I haven't mentioned? Please share it with us in the comments!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN: "Fancying Up" a Loaf of Bread

As someone who regularly makes my own bread, a homemade loaf is an easy gift for me to give. Most people are thrilled to receive a freshly made loaf of bread, and what is a simple gift for me to prepare is one that is deeply appreciated by the recipient. When I'm going to make loaves for gifting, I like to make them a bit fancier than my typical sandwich loaf. Here are a couple of ways to do that:

For each loaf, use 1/3 of a recipe of Whole Wheat Refrigerator Dough (the dough should have already completed its first rise in the fridge)

1. Twisted Loaf

Divide your hunk of dough into two equal pieces and roll out into logs a few inches longer than the desired length of the finished loaf (my butcher knife is in the photo just for scale)


Twist the two dough ropes around one another, then tuck the ends underneath

Place in parchment-paper lined loaf pan to rise.

2. "Casserole" loaf

Take your hunk of dough and form it into a large, loose ball. Place in a greased shallow round casserole dish and press dough into the dish so it covers the entire bottom. Cut a few deep slits in the dough to make an attractive design.

To make the loaves even more special, I finish them with an egg wash (beat an egg then brush over top of loaf with a pastry brush) and sprinkle with a seed mixture (I use equal parts sesame and poppy seeds).

Here are both loaves in the pan, ready for rising:

After an hour of rising, they look like this:

And after baking, the finished product:

Not only does a homemade loaf make a great hostess gift, it can become the centerpiece of a food-filled gift basket. Next week I will share some suggestions for homemade accompaniments to give along with your lovely loaf!

I shared this at the GCC Recipe Swap and Friday Favorites.

Previous "Gifts From the Kitchen":
Puppy Chow
Candied Peanuts

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thrift Store Scores: 50% Off Day at Value Village

Yesterday was a 50% off day at Value Village here in Canada. There were a few items of clothing we had on our "wanted" list, so off we went to see what we could find!

Before we even started bargain hunting, I was thrilled to see the renovations they have completed to our local store. They have expanded into the space that used to be next door, making it much more spacious and easy to move around. They also reorganized the entire store, making it easier to find what you're looking for. The change rooms were given an overhaul, too, making them larger with built-in benches in each change room (much easier to stow your stuff on these benches than on those flimsy wall hooks, and also a place to sit when giving pants a good test fit).

Not only did we have a more pleasant shopping experience than on our last visit, we also managed to find everything we wanted. I was looking for some cozy sweaters for myself and found the following:

A black ribbed roll neck sweater, $4.00

A super-soft and warm red cowl neck sweater, $5.00

A warm, snuggly and soft hoodie (perfect weekend lounge wear) $3.50

*And* I even found myself a pair of shoes (this is a near-miracle with my size 9 1/2 super narrow feet)

Comfortable enough for running errands, versatile enough to wear with pants or a skirt, and only $2.50!

My hubby was looking to replace his worn out jeans and found 2 pairs that fit the bill:

One pair was $3.50, the other pair was $3.00

I was hoping to find a pair of good-looking pants for my older son to wear on occasions when his perpetually-stained jeans won't quite cut it, and really scored on this front:

These Gap cargo pants cost $3.00, fit him *perfectly* and are in pristine condition. While the tags aren't on them, I'm positive no one ever wore them as the snaps and velcro on the pockets have that never-been-used feel.

My younger son also found a hoodie for $3.50 that I don't have a photo of as he disappeared with it as soon as we got home from shopping!

The grand total for our purchases this trip (with taxes) was $31.12, or an average of 3.89 an item for 8 items.

I'll be doing a final year-end clothing budget report during the last week of December; we're looking good to come in at just over $300 for the year!

Have you been over- or under- budget for your family's clothing this year? Any great finds to share?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #15

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now! 

Breakfasts: baked oatmeal, pumpkin chocolate chip muffins (subbed pumpkin puree for banana in this recipe), cornbread with jam

Lunches: pizza, sandwiches (peanut butter and jam, tuna), cream of tomato soup with leftover garlic & cheddar biscuits, pizza, toad-in-the-hole


Monday: Bean & Cheese Burritos (with homemade flour tortillas), Colourful Cabbage Salad, dill pickles (home-canned)

Tuesday: Pork & Apple Stew, garlic & cheddar biscuits

Wednesday: Leftover Buffet

Thursday: Black Bean Chili, cornbread

Friday: out at coffee house fundraiser for son's drama group

Saturday: lentil burgers, oven fries

Sunday: Birthday feast (family party for son's 13th birthday) ham, turkey croquettes, cheesy vegetable casserole, twice-baked potatoes, gravy, homemade bread, pickles, clementine and spinach salad, chocolate cupcakes, butter tart squares, fresh pineapple chunks

Snacks & Sides: apples, clementines, grapes, bananas, applesauce, fresh pineapple

For more great meal ideas, head over to Menu Plan Monday at

Friday, November 12, 2010


I know I promised to post at least one quick and easy homemade gift idea each week, and since the week's almost over I suppose I better get on with this week's installment.

This is another recipe that can be prepared in just a few minutes with a short list of ingredients. This is a good one for kids to help with as (unlike last week's recipe) there's no scalding hot sugar involved!

While this recipe title makes it sound like it's meant for our canine friends, it's most definitely for people - ones who love the peanut-butter-and-chocolate combo. We sometimes tag this as "Reindeer Droppings" for Christmas gifting (kids in particular will find this amusing). Whatever you call it, it won't last long!

1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter
8 cups Crispix or Rice Chex cereal (we use Crispix)
2 cups icing sugar

Melt the butter, chocolate chips and peanut butter together in a medium saucepan (or in a bowl in the microwave). Measure the cereal out into a large bowl, then pour the melted chocolate mixture over top, stirring until evenly coated. Put the icing sugar in a large plastic bag, then add the cereal and toss until well coated with sugar (you can also use a large reusable container with a tightly fitting lid for this step). Store in an airtight container. Warning: highly addictive!

If you missed last week's recipe for Candied Peanuts, you can find it here.

(Note: I will be coming back and adding photos of the actual recipes to each post as I make them; I'm making a batch of Candied Peanuts this weekend so I'll be adding that one soon!)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

RECIPE: Garlic & Cheddar Biscuits

I think I get a bit obsessed with breads in the fall and winter - not only are they the perfect accompaniment for the soups, stews, and casseroles that are staple fare this time of year, the act of baking them provides a welcome boost of heat to the kitchen, taking the edge off the season's chill.

A couple of weeks ago I shared my recipe for Basil & Oregano Flatbread. Here is another one of our family favourites, a quick drop biscuit you can easily throw together while dinner is simmering away on the stovetop. The extra step of sauteing the garlic in the butter does dirty another frying pan, but the results are well worth it!

2 cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup milk
3 tbsp mayonnaise
3/4 cup grated cheddar

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a small frying pan, melt the butter, then saute the garlic in the butter *very* briefly (about 20 seconds) - be careful not to over brown it! Add the garlic/butter mixture, milk, and mayonnaise to the flour mixture, stirring gently just until combined. Fold in the cheddar cheese. The dough will be sticky and moist. Using a soup spoon, drop generous spoonfuls of dough about 1" apart on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet (you should get 12 biscuits from one batch of dough). Bake at 375F for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.

I shared this recipe at Tasty Tuesday, the GCC Recipe Swap, the Pantry Recipe Swap and Friday Favorites.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Weekly Menu Retrospective #14

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now!  

Breakfasts: gingerbread muffins, homemade granola, baked oatmeal, pumpkin chocolate chip muffins (subbed pumpkin for banana in this recipe), pancakes

Lunches: sandwiches (ham, peanut butter and jam), leftovers (cheesy mac & beef skillet, creamy tuna pasta), perogies, pizza


Monday: Cheesy Mac & Beef Skillet

Tuesday: Curried Peanut Soup, toast

Wednesday: Lentil burgers, oven fries

Thursday: Creamy Tuna Pasta with Peas & Carrots

Friday: Broccoli & Mozzarella Egg Puff

Saturday: Tacos (beef and bean)

Sunday: Crispy Parmesan Breaded Chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, carrots, Amish Oatmeal Pie

Snacks & Sides: bananas, grapes, apples, clementines, popcorn

For more great meal ideas, head on over to Menu Plan Monday at

Thursday, November 4, 2010

DIY Adventures: Sprucing up Our Side Entrance

Back when I started this blog, one of the things I was excited about sharing was our home improvement do-it-yourself adventures. We bought a nearly-century-old, two-and-a-half-story fixer-upper seven years ago, with the intention of slowly bringing it back to its former glory. The previous (elderly) owners had lived here for 48 years, and had not done many updates in the last quarter century. When we arrived, the place was filled with yellowing linoleum, mustard yellow and olive green carpeting, and - possibly one of the most dreadful wall coverings ever - black and brown flowered mac tac on the kitchen walls (yes, really!). Despite its off-putting appearance, the place was solidly built and had a lot of "old house charm" waiting to be resuscitated (such as the original hardwood floors under all that ghastly carpeting).

While we've managed to get the place looking a lot better than it did when we arrived, there is still MUCH to be done, and we're determined to do everything we possibly can ourselves. Thankfully, my hubby is a pretty handy guy, or we would never have considered purchasing this house.

Our latest project has been working on the side entrance to the house. There is work to be done on both the interior and exterior; we decided to start with the interior and work outwards.

The first thing we wanted to do was fill in the milk door, which was not in great shape and was responsible for a huge draft. While we wanted to leave as many original features on the house as possible, this one was pretty much a lost cause. Here's what it looked like after hubby ripped off the interior part of the door:

He packed the space full of insulation, then drywalled over the top of it. Much taping, plastering, sanding and painting later, it now looks like this:

Slightly better, wouldn't you say? And now we have a place to keep our bike panniers handy (since we often run errands on our bike rather than using the van, it's nice to have them in a grab-and-go spot, rather than way down in the basement where they were previously).

The side entrance is right off the kitchen, so the wall to the left of the bike bags is designated for those items we like to keep handy to the kitchen but don't have the space to store there. This is what it looked like before:

All of the corners of the walls were in terrible condition, with the plaster having cracked along most of them. My hubby had to tape and plaster all of them. While he's done a lot of different home improvement projects, he had never taped and plastered a corner before. I'm so proud of him for learning how to do this! It would have cost a lot to hire someone else to do it, and I know he's going to need this skill again for various projects.

Once again, there was much taping, plastering, sanding, and painting. It now looks like this:

We replaced the bare light bulb with a fixture we found at Value Village:

So far, our total expenses for the project have been:

69.73 for building supplies (drywall, tape, plaster, sandpaper, insulation)
10.16 electrical switch (we had to replace the old one which was falling apart)
6.76 light fixture
0.62 screw for lamp (my hubby has a large collection, however none were quite long enough!)
4.75 one quarter of a can of primer (we'll use the rest for other projects)

We were able to use leftover paint from other projects for both the walls and the heart-shaped hanger the bike bags are hanging from.

Total to date: $92.02

The next major piece will be replacing the flooring (a nice old crusty linoleum - you can see it in the first picture). My brother has offered us some ceramic tile he was unable to use for a bathroom reno at his house; he's bringing it over in a couple weeks so we'll be able to see if it's going to work with our colour scheme. If not, we'll be exploring other options, such as linoleum remnants. The side door itself also needs painting and a new curtain, and we need to either repair or replace the screen door on the outside. I don't think we'll be painting the door until the spring now, as it's too cold to take it off for a day. I have. I have a strong tendency to procrastinate on sewing projects, but I'd really like to get the curtain done (and a matching one for the back door). I have the fabric already - from a set of curtains my friend sewed for us at our old apartment. The windows there were huge, so there is plenty of material to work with!

I'll be sure to post another update as more progress is made.
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