Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tightwad tuesday: read up

A while ago, one of the children's librarians at our library (who happens to be a friend we got to know last year at the community garden) gifted me with a couple books the library was letting go: The Tightwad Gazette, volumes one and two. Since then, they've languished on a windowsill under a stack of library books (what can I say? I've been a bit preoccupied), but the other day I was looking for something to read while I camped with my swollen ankles propped up in front of the A/C, and they caught my eye.

Amy Dacyczyn, a self-proclaimed "Frugal Zealot", first published The Tightwad Gazette in newsletter form in 1990; later she compiled the newsletters into three volumes, organized seasonally. One of the things I really enjoyed about the books right away was Dacyczyn's notion that thrift gets an undeservedly bad rap, and we should promote "tightwaddery" by seeking out and sharing with other like-minded penny-pinchers.

As with all tightwad tips, her newsletters have some suggestions that won't work for every household, and some are even a bit dated. What I've found useful is that her ideas (and those of her readers) get me thinking about how I do things, where I could cut back, what I can tweak in how I'm doing things now. One of the best ideas that I'm itching to try--but it's going to take more work than I can do right now--is creating a price notebook of all the items our family purchases most frequently so I can compare how much different stores charge for that item, and know when I'm really getting a good deal. I plan on trying this later in the fall, and will report back on how it goes.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for some interesting reading, I highly recommend checking out The Tightwad Gazette--from your local library, of course.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tightwad tuesday: 72-hour kits

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

It's an old saw that never gets outdated--and it's true: sometimes you have to spend a bit now in order to save later. Look no further than Virginia earlier today to see that there is no instance in which this is more true than preparing for an emergency. Spending now could save you money later on--and more importantly, maybe even save your life or that of a loved one.

Before Jimmy was born, I worked for the City of Bellevue. All City employees were expected to be available to help assess damage to local infrastructure in the event of an emergency or natural disaster, and because I lived within 2 miles of city hall, I was in the first tier expected to report. The big risks in that area were earthquake, volcanic eruption and terrorist attacks. That's when I got in the habit of having a portable 72-hour kit stashed under my desk at work that included a change of clothes, food, water and first aid, as well as one at home and a smaller kit in my car.

Now we live in a more rural area, but we're still at risk for earthquakes and volcanic eruption, and flooding is a problem in our county every year, although this past winter is the first time we ever found any water leaking into our basement.

Currently, I keep a kit in my home near the front door, as well as the mini-kit in my trunk. The big one's in a large wheeled plastic storage chest that includes a backpack for each person with clothes and food, along with first aid and sanitary supplies for the whole family. It's true, I go through various stages of vigilance in rotating and updating the contents of my kit, but my recent bout of nesting got me thinking I needed to check it.

Last week I gutted and reorganized Jimmy's and Audrey's closets, and it seemed like the perfect time to swap out the change of clothes in their kit backpacks with the sizes they're currently wearing. I also went through and replaced all the food that was outdated, and added a new feature to my kit: a "refresh list". I got the idea from a recent issue of Parents magazine, which suggested keeping a card with a list of the expiration dates of all perishables in your kit, so you could see at a glance what needed to be updated.

If you want to put together a 72-hour kit on your own (since pre-assembled kits tend to be pricey) and are looking for a good place to start, try 72hours.org. I also like this checklist put together by the Washington State Emergency Management division.

Just remember: you don't have to put it all together at once. Start with a container large enough to hold all the supplies for however many people are in your household. If you don't already have something suitable on hand, try an inexpensive container such as a large food-grade bucket or a suitcase or backpack you pick up for a couple bucks at a thrift store.

Buy a few items for your kit each week when you purchase your regular groceries, or go in with someone else if there are items you need to purchase in bulk. By working at it gradually, you can assemble your emergency kit without breaking the bank.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Dinner paradigm shift debrief

The short ribs were a big hit. I had to bite my tongue and reel myself in (old habits die oh, so hard) as I coached Jimmy through different tasks to prepare dinner, but it was definitely worth every ounce of self-control I exerted. He glowed with a sense of accomplishment after, was willing to try two new dishes, and loved everything he cooked.

This old dog is gonna learn new tricks, even if it kills her.

Dinner paradigm shift

To say my relationship with food is complicated is an understatement, and of all the things that perplex me, cooking dinner tops the list. I love to eat, to cook for the holidays, and to cook for company or take dinner to friends when they're sick or have had a baby. When I know the people I'm cooking for will enjoy what I'm preparing, I find myself taking creative pleasure in trying new dishes and experimenting to improve old favorites. Making everyday dinners, though, is at best a perfunctory task, and most nights frustrating and exhausting.

I can't pinpoint the precise time I started to dread dinner, but I can trace it back to puberty, when my mom went back to college and work. I had to take on dinner duty several nights a week and like a typical teen, I chafed at the unwanted responsibility. That early resentment has informed my attitude about cooking dinner ever since.

When I first got married, it was challenging to cook for a husband who had strong prejudices against certain foods (many of them my favorites) but was reluctant to tell me for fear of offending his new bride. During the early years of our marriage, I struggled to find things we both liked while still injecting some variety into our menu; I could only eat spaghetti so many nights a week. I found a solution that seemed to work for a while: I created a monthly meal calendar of recipes we both could live with, so we only ate the same dish once a month.

When we had children, though, the monthly meal calendar no longer seemed to work. Not only were we on a tighter budget, but even more challenging, I had three disparate palates besides my own to satisfy. Some nights, out of desperation, I became a short order cook, making one meal for me and Jim and two additional, separate meals for Jimmy and Audrey. Even then, no one seemed pleased--especially not me.

Jim and I have come up with a few strategies to cope, but none of them is a complete fix. Each week I sit down with him, the kids and the ads from the local grocer, and ask for their input in deciding on what dinners we'll eat for the week. That way I can try to cater to their requests while taking advantage of what's on sale.

Each child also has one night a week that is "their" night: they get to choose what's for dinner--and originally the idea was for them to help cook dinner, too, though I've been less successful at implementing that part of the plan. Often, however, I still wind up preparing a separate meal for at least one person because Audrey will request chicken nuggets every time it's her night, and no one else likes them--or she refuses to eat what Jimmy has chosen for his night. Even with one night where they do get to choose, there are still six nights of "But Mo-om, I don't like this," and it wears me down. I look at blogs, food shows, and my go-to website, Allrecipes.com, and try to introduce new dishes, but it's a challenge to find ones that make everyone happy.

So, we buy a lot of Dino-nuggets at Costco for Audrey--and make a lot of peanut-butter-Nutella sandwiches for Jimmy.

Meanwhile, my resentment about cooking dinner has continued to grow. My blood pressure rises automatically at 5 p.m. As a matter of course, I tend to banish everyone from the kitchen while I prepare dinner just to have some peace and quiet so I can tend to a task I don't enjoy as quickly as possible. I am usually short with everyone while I cook and during the entire meal. If we're in a hurry to get somewhere after dinner (cub scouts, soccer practice, piano lessons), I get even more stressed out.

Add pregnancy to the mix... and yeah, the last several months have been rough. Jim has taken pity on me and we usually eat out about once a week, or he gives me a break by doing the cooking.

The upshot of all this is I'm suddenly finding myself in a place where I feel ready to change things up. Our dinner problem has been going on for years now, and I have had no idea how to fix it, but I want to--and I want a permanent fix.

If it's me that has to change for it to get fixed, so be it. While the timing isn't ideal because I'm pregnant and don't have a lot of energy, somehow being in a place in my life that is intrinsically creative (i.e., nurturing a new life) is helping me to think creatively in terms of solving this problem. I've been brainstorming, reading, bouncing ideas off Jim, and tweaking the things that are already working to see if I can take them further.

I just started reading a wonderful cookbook, Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys, by Lucinda Scala Quinn. Most of the recipes are for delicious but uncomplicated meals with basic ingredients--but even if none of them appeal to our family, what I'm really going to take away from the book is the author's philosophy that well-made meals can be an extension of our love for our families only when they are prepared joyfully and used as a teaching and bonding time between parents and children. Tonight we're test-driving, at Jimmy's request, a recipe from the book for short ribs, and I'm going to do my best to budget my time and have him in the kitchen with me.

I want dinner to be fun again. For all of us.