Monday, August 23, 2010

Let’s ban automatic windows

Just when I’d resigned myself to driving around with the van window permanently stuck in a partially closed position -- leaving a tolerable two-inch gap -- it finally came unstuck the other day.

The funny thing was, I’d just sent our paychecks through the pneumatic tube in the bank drivethrough lane when it happened. I was standing there with the van door open so I could reach the tube. While I was waiting, just for something to do I pressed the window button. And suddenly it worked! So I gave a little shout of triumph and hopped back in the van and opened the window -- only to discover that I couldn‘t reach the tube. So I had to get back out again.

And so now we have an apparently functional window that we never use, because I don’t trust it to not get stuck in some inconvenient position.

Which makes me wonder: Who decided that automatic windows were a mark of human progress? Can’t we all just go back to the old-fashioned cranks, which almost never break down? I mean, the worst that ever happened is a knob would break off or something, but you could still get the window open with just a little bit of extra effort. Do kids today even remember hand-cranked windows?

If I had a Facebook page, I’d start a campaign to demand automakers scrap automatic windows: Ban them! Wipe them off the face of the planet! Except for people who need special assistance, I guess.

So maybe this will get me over the inertia speed bump and I’ll finally plug in to the rest of the human interface. We’ll see.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A matter of perception

I was looking over granola bars at the store the other day when I found myself gravitating toward the cookies. Usually bars are found in the breakfast aisle and cookies in the bakery or snack aisle. But at Aldi‘s, granola bars co-exist with cookies, and with good reason: According to their labels, the primary difference between the bars on my list and the oatmeal-raisin cookies I was coveting was their shape.

The Benton’s Homestyle Oatmeal Raisin cookies I bought were 120 calories each, with four grams of fat and two grams of fiber. That comes out to two Weight Watchers points -- the same as a typical Fiber One bar and less than many other granola bars, which often have more fat and calories and less fiber.

Here’s an even weirder comparison: One serving of Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey crunchy granola bars has 190 calories, six grams of fat and two grams of fiber. That’s four Weight Watchers points -- the same as one of those frosted bakery-style Lofthouse sugar cookies, which have 190 calories, seven grams of fat and less than one gram of fiber.

That doesn’t mean all cookies can compete nutritionally with granola bars, or that all breakfast bars are little more than rectangles of cookie dough. But when you consider that granola bars usually cost more than cookies, it’s worth checking the label.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beach substitute yields cheap vacation discovery

We were going to go to the Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan last weekend, just drive up for the day because we’re squeamish campers and the Holiday Inn Express wanted almost $300 a night, this being peak season and all. But then we heard about the E. coli trouble they’ve been having up there, and decided to do the beach thing at Mississinewa Reservoir instead -- which was much closer and much cheaper, when you consider that we were able to rent a cabin for less than the cost of a tank of gas.

I was afraid it would be boring. I couldn‘t get the idea out of my head that this big old “lake” was really, underneath it all, just flooded farmland (and at least one flooded town, Somerset, Ind., the ancestral hometown of my husband’s family). But the beach was really nice, and as the kids played in the water it suddenly occurred to me that while this body of water lacks the grandeur of the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico, the kids were basically having the same sort of fun they’ve had on tonier beaches.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Economical, environmental and cute, to boot

It’s not exactly groundbreaking news that reusable sandwich containers make a lot more sense than plastic sandwich bags. But it took the pop art kitsch of this Wonder Bread box to get me over the inertia hump and finally make the switch.

These sell for $3.99 at various online sites, including Amazon, but I found this one in the bread aisle at Walmart for about a buck less. That’s Rowan in the pic, with her first-day-of-school PBJ (on whole wheat, of course).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The liberation of disposable clothing

A horse used my shirt for a napkin the other day at the 4-H fair, drooling green grassy slime all over my shoulder. The stain didn’t come out the first trip through the washer, so it remains to be seen whether this is a napkin of the reusable or disposable variety.

The bad news: It was a brand new shirt. I literally cut the tags off just before I put it on that day.

The good news: Thanks to the “no new clothes” vow (and my rapidly changing clothing sizes as I cut weight), I’ve developed an “easy come, easy go” attitude about my wardrobe. (Though this really was a brand new shirt, with its original tags intact, I bought it at Goodwill.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Micro meals: A “frugal fuel” experiment

Last week I wrote about the weirdness of learning to accept my frugal fuel needs even while living in a super-sized society -- realizing that my body type, underneath all that padding I’d accumulated before losing 60 pounds in six months, is actually much closer to an economy car than an SUV.

Well, in an attempt to make the most of a day’s worth of fuel, I decided to try an experiment: Taking in my 23 allotted Weight Watchers points one at a time over the course of the day.

For those of you not familiar with the points system, use this for reference: A McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese and medium order of french fries equals 20 points. So it’s rather easy, eating the typical American diet, to blow through your allotted points in a single meal if you aren’t careful.

But you can also take the opposite perspective, and marvel at some of the delightful things you can eat for only a single point: A cup of grapes or blueberries or strawberries, for instance. Half a cup of fat free refried beans with salsa, using carrots instead of chips for dipping.

By eating only one point at a time, I’d essentially be eating 23 snacks and mini-meals all day long. Hard to feel deprived doing that. And I didn’t. For the record, here’s what I ate the day of the experiment:

1. 1/2 thin whole-wheat bagel
2. 1/2 tablespoon peanut butter (eaten from the measuring spoon)
3. 1/2 cup skim milk
4. 1/2 thin whole-wheat bagel
5. 1/2 slice American cheese, melted over mushrooms in the microwave
6. 1/2 tablespoon peanut butter (see above)
7. 1/2 thin whole wheat bagel
8. Fiber One 90-calorie bar
9. 1 cup blueberries
10. 1 plum (at only 35 calories, this item is only half a point)
11. 1/2 cup fat free refried beans, eaten from the measuring cup with a spoon
12. 1/2 cup baby carrots dipped in two tablespoons of salsa con queso
13. 1/2 banana
14. the second half of the banana
15. 1/4 cup rice and beans
16. Fiber One 90-calorie bar
17. 1/2 slice bread with 1/2 tablespoon jam
18. 1/3 cup bran flakes with 1/4 cup milk
19. 1/2 cup fat free ice cream
20. 4 tortilla chips with 1 tablespoon chili conqueso
21. 1/3 ounce swiss cheese
22. 1 sugar free popsicle (at only 15 calories, this item has zero points)
23. 1/4 cup rice and beans

Total snacks and micro meals: 23
Total calories for the day: 1,370
Total Weight Watchers points for the day: 21.5

As you can see, that’s quite a lengthy list of food. No single thing took very long to eat, but because one of the rules I made up was that I had to consume each “point” separately, as its own meal or snack, I felt like I was constantly eating. And I was: If you average 23 snacks or “fuel stops” out over the approximately 18 hours I was conscious last Thursday, then it was meal time every 47 minutes. Yet I never did use up all the points I was allotted, coming in 1.5 points under my limit.

The most amusing part of this experiment were the “micro meals” I came up with: that three-bite serving of cereal, for instance, or the tiny plate of nachos.

And then there were those tasty 1-point items I completely forgot about: A 12-ounce bottle of Miller Genuine Draft lite beer (only 64 calories), a three-egg white omelette with veggies and salsa or ketchup, a 3-ounce baked potato with salsa or ketchup.

Oh well, maybe next time.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cassie's clutter craft

I really hate recycled crafts that call for you to buy a bunch of stuff to complete the project. So when Cassie wanted to make this treasure keeper frog we saw in Family Fun magazine, we decided to look around the house for a spare 12-inch zipper rather than going to the store.

We found just what we needed in an old sweatshirt from Cassie's toddler days. It was in a pile of stuff headed for Goodwill, but the rest of the sweatshirt will still be put to good use -- we'll make hot pads or some other rag rug project.

We did buy googly eyes, though we could have just as easily made the eyes (to cover one end of the wine cork eyeballs) out of small circles of white fabric and smaller circles of black fabric.

By the way: This project works out a whole lot better if you use a hole punch to make the holes on the 2-liter bottles, rather than the push pin the magazine recommends.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Grocery thrifts, as a species

Another scratch-and-dent grocery has sprouted along one of my usual driving routes. You’d think stores like these would be as unique and individual as their often eccentric owners, but in my experience there are far more similarities than differences. It’s almost like going into a chain store, only without a unifying branding and color scheme. 

The prices were about exactly what I expected: Canned food, with its long shelf life, isn’t much of a bargain in stores like these. Cereal, a bit more fragile (though not as much as you might think), was priced just low enough -- $1.50 -- to make me consider pulling the trigger. Mostly I bought cereal bars, a good enough deal at $1 a box, especially when I needed to restock our snack container.

I didn’t ask, but I find myself wondering: Is the uniformity dictated by suppliers that operate somewhat like multi-layer marketing outfits, providing (or perhaps even demanding) specific layouts and strategies? Or are these just natural characteristics of a certain species of business that have evolved over time?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bottomfeeder Pie

In the supermarket ecosystem, I’m a bottomfeeder. My eyes are calibrated to zero in on those orange stickers indicating food that’s nearing its expiration date. And one of my favorite things to look for, when I’m trolling grocery stores, is bagged spinach.

I never pay full price for fresh spinach, because at one of the stores I frequent there‘s almost always a bag or two that’s been marked down. But unlike bagged lettuce, which looks like a goner by the time it gets its orange sticker, bagged spinach can be used up to a week after its expiration date. It may not be crisp enough to go in a salad, but you can always put it on a pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich, or in a cheesy baked concoction I call Bottomfeeder Pie.

This isn’t a pie in the conventional sense, because there’s no crust. I call it that because I like the name and I usually make it in a pie pan. The funny thing is, Bottomfeder Pie shares 98 percent of the same DNA as Delectable Spinach, an elegant party dish in the local Unitarian Church’s cookbook. But whereas I once spent nearly $10 buying the ingredients to make Delectable Spinach for a holiday party -- uncharacteristically shopping at the last minute -- Bottomfeeder Pie is practically free.

The reason: This dish is like a sponge I use to clean out the fridge and freezer compartment. Whenever I detect a buildup of partially used old cream cheese containers and mushrooms that look like they’re getting ready to walk out to the compost heap on their own, I gather up my collection of half-full bagged spinach from the fridge and/or freezer, dump it in a greased baking dish, and shake whatever’s hiding in the bottom of the oldest shredded cheese bag on top. Delicious. Delectable, even.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning to accept my frugal fuel needs

I’m up to 56.6 pounds lost since Jan. 18. Which means it’s time to cut my food intake again, according to the Weight Watchers plan I‘m following.

It’s weird to come to grips with just how little food I really need to sustain the smallish frame underneath all that padding I’d accumulated. As a food lover, it’s been quite an adjustment. But as a frugal person, it’s like trading an SUV in on an economy car.

I’m learning to accept that food is fuel, but I like the idea of concocting my own formula for the most satisfying mix of nutrients. Among my favorite fuel components thus far:
    -- a tablespoon of peanut butter (2 points) with six chocolate chips (half a point), either on a spoon or a thin whole wheat bagel (2 points)
    -- half a cup of fat free refried beans (1 point) topped with salsa (O points) and maybe a tablespoon of salsa con queso (1 point)
    -- a three egg-white omelette with veggies and ketchup or salsa (1 point).
    -- raw spinach and half a slice of cheese on two slices of low-cal bread (2 points)

These components provide the framework of my daily fuel intake, and because I like all of these things a lot, I don’t feel deprived. I do sometimes set aside a few points for a special “spotlight” food, such as a cup of Great Value fat free ice cream with a tablespoon of peanut butter and a tablespoon of Hershey’s chocolate syrup (5 points) or a Wendy’s baked potato with margarine spread and reduced fat sour cream (7 points).

The funny thing is, the line between the fuel framework and the food taking the spotlight inside that “frame” can be blurry. Though I usually reserve my peanut butter ice cream sundae for Monday nights, after my Weight Watchers weigh-in, points-wise, it falls within accepted parameters for a meal. So this morning, when we were out of milk, I decided to add 1/4 cup of dry oatmeal “sprinkles” to my peanut butter sundae for a tasty six-point breakfast that, while technically a dessert, still provided protein, calcium, fiber and a smattering of vitamins. (Not to mention a whole lot of satisfaction.)

Framing foods can also be a great way to deconstruct them in such a way that they begin to lose their power over you. Take McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese. Every once in a while I’ll have one of these on Monday nights, when I’ve saved most of my points for after weigh-in. But I don’t have them as much as I used to, because I’m no longer convinced this burger delivers 12 points’ worth of satisfaction.

The problem is the bun. I love bread, and could never deal with the Atkins diet for that reason. But I’ve always preferred breads with substance over poofy white clouds, and now whenever I find myself holding a quarter pounder, I can’t help thinking how many points you could cut out of this sucker with a whole grain thin bun. It would taste better, too.

And as for the burger itself, I’ve had some mighty fine veggie burgers in my day. After you load on the cheese and veggies and condiments, it seems like all you really have is a protein disk underneath. So is it really necessary to kill an animal and consume extra fat, calories and cholesterol for one kind of protein disk over another?

Nearly a century after some now-forgotten vice president* quipped that what this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar, I say it’s time to up the ante: What this country really needs is a really good whole-grain vegetarian version of a quarter pounder with cheese.

*Thomas R. Marshall, a democratic governor from Indiana who, unlike Evan Bayh, went on to become vice president. He served under Woodrow Wilson, from 1913 to 1921. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

‘No New Clothes’ update

I finally found a tank top to go with my favorite orange running shorts, at Salvation Army, where they group shirts according to color. Wouldn’t it be easier if regular stores did the same? You need an orange shirt, you look in the orange shirts section. What could be simpler?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cheap emergency ice for the cooler

I really hate the way you can bargain-shop for kids’ sports treats, and then wind up spending your savings (and more) on ice for the cooler.

Ideally, we harvest ice cubes from trays and bag them for storage in the second freezer for just this purpose. But the last time we were supposed to bring snacks for Ben’s baseball team, I only had five trays’ worth of cubes to stock our vintage Playmate cooler -- and because Colleen had an earlier T-ball game, we had to leave the house three hours before game time on a hot, muggy night.

Needless to say, most of the ice melted before Ben’s game even started. Determined to avoid buying a bag of ice, I stopped at a convenience store and filled a 44-ounce cup with ice for a dime. It was just enough to keep the drinks cold until after the game.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The misery-index gift registry

When it comes to finding gifts for middle-aged people, I no longer think in terms of what we can buy or make them, but how we can reduce their misery index.

I got the idea while talking to an older relative whose birthday we usually try to acknowledge, though often in a haphazard, after-the-fact fashion. We were discussing his birthday, which happened to be of the milestone variety, when he mentioned that he spent it in a very unsatisfying fashion, feeling obligated to attend an event that made him miserable. Though we wound up slipping a pizza discount card in his birthday envelope, it occurred to me that what might have been more useful, and made him happier, was offering to track this particular noxious event in the coming year, note the date on which it was to occur, and suggest alternative ways he could book that time slot on his schedule so that he could say he was busy and couldn’t attend.

When you live with someone, of course, you have a much greater knowledge of their misery index. So when Father’s Day arrived this past Sunday, it wasn’t so much a question of trying to think up ideas as simply settling on one of the many possibilities. The kids and I decided to tackle the tool problem, which really amounted to a two-part gift:
    1. Finding all the tools that the kids were always spiriting away and then misplacing in various odd locations.
    2. Clearing out the garage, especially all the junk piled on top of the workbench, so that Bob could finally set up a neat, well-organized tool area, especially desirable now that he’s actually developed a knack for using said tools.
    As a bonus, Rowan settled on an independent study project clearing out a room that we’ve been intending to convert into Bob’s office.
    Not surprisingly, Bob reported that this might be the best set of Father’s Day gifts he’s ever received. And we didn’t spend a penny.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Still more weird crap for the compost stew

According to its website, Prima water bottles are made from 100 percent “plant material.” Corn, actually. They’re supposed to biodegrade in a commercial composting facility, though I‘m guessing a bottle left lying in the grass would be there for an awfully long time.

We’re dumping this one in the compost, where it will join “the world’s first 100% compostable chip bag” (Sun Chips), some allegedly biodegradable balloons and a cardboard pizza box, along with some of the more typical natural ingredients you find in a compost brew.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How nature recycles leftovers

Cassie found yet another example of thrift in nature the other day: caterpillars eating their own shedded skin for the extra protein boost. She got this from "Lanie," an American Girl book by Jane Kurtz. And we found this photo of a caterpillar in skin-eating mode on

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The anti-grocery list

Ten things I refuse to buy in the middle of the week, even if I run out:
1. Dishwasher detergent -- whether it’s the commercial kind, or simply the ingredients for my homemade version, I always figure there’s no reason I can’t do dishes by hand until Friday, when I get my next week’s supply of grocery money.
2. Sandwich bags -- You can always swathe sandwiches in plastic wrap or make a bag out of the bottom of a cereal-box liner. Better yet, maybe I’ll finally buy one of those plastic “sandwich keeper” containers.
3. Coffee filters -- Two napkins laid so that eight corners are exposed do just as well. In a pinch, I‘ve even reused the filter from the day before.
4. Band-aids -- Almost any injury requiring a band-aid can be handled with a square of folded-up Kleenex and some packing tape.
5. Bread -- Make your own!
6. Cereal -- My kids get a cereal allowance, and just like their money, when it‘s gone, it‘s gone. The only exception: My husband‘s Raisin Bran, which is as much a part of his diet as bamboo to a panda.
7. Jam -- Put fruit on your PB in place of the J. Lettuce is nice, too.
8. Toilet bowl cleaner -- There’s almost always something around I can use instead: a can of Coke, bleach, borax. Bob‘s had great success with that heavy-duty citrus orange hand cleaner.
9. Deoderant -- The next time we run out of this in the middle of the week, I will finally be inspired to investigate how one goes about using baking soda as a deoderant.
10. Pasta -- You never really run out of pasta or noodles if you’ve got a little flour, oil and an egg in the house. Mix it up, roll it out, and cut into strips.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Celebrating shrinking

How do you celebrate losing 50 pounds in 21 weeks? (The official tally: 51.4). My first thought was to order a pizza, having restrained myself to just one skinny slice the night before Monday‘s weigh-in. After not eating much all day, I figured I had enough Weight Watchers points saved up for half a large cheese pizza from Pizza Hut.

On the other hand, I had a bunch of veggies and whole-wheat tortillas at home to make myself a customized personal pizza. So I bought some mozzarella cheese and indulged myself by using half a cup, twice as much as usual. Very tasty, very satisfying, and only a fraction of the cost and calories of a Pizza Hut concoction.

I followed that up with my usual Monday night ice cream sundae, what I think of as a stripped-down version of a Dairy Queen peanut buster parfait: One cup of Great Value fat free ice cream, 1 tablespoon of chunky peanut butter and 1 tablespoon of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. It’s only five points instead of the real thing’s 16, but it pushes all the right buttons in the reward center in my brain. And I didn’t have to buy anything -- all the ingredients were leftover from a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Emergency rations for hungry guests

Coming back from a movie the other day with an extra “kid” in tow (my daughter’s boyfriend, Kevin), I was panicking because I knew everyone was hungry but wasn’t sure what I had on hand. Like a true brainwashed consumer, I kept thinking pizza was our only solution. Then I remembered we had a box of Velveeta-style cheese and a couple of loaves of bread. A big platter of grilled cheese sandwiches did the trick.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The compostable bag that wouldn't die

The "world's first 100% Compostable chip bag" is proving to be one tough nut to crack in the compost heap. We dug this Sun Chips bag out of the compost over Memorial Day weekend for an impromptu photo session, and discovered that after 69 days -- just under seven weeks, half the time it's supposed to take to decompose -- it didn't look much worse than it did in Week 1. We could probably run it through the dishwasher and reuse it. Then again, maybe that would jump-start the composting process. Hmm....

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Improvising a cheeseball on deadline

I made my first cheeseball about 15 years ago, when I was trying out some of my grandma’s recipes in the months after she died. It was a hit, not just with relatives on my mom’s side, who appreciated the sentimental connection, but in a couple of other circles as well.

I’m still asked to bring cheeseballs to parties, so naturally I’ve spent some time thinking about how to reduce the cost of a dish that could easily top $10, depending on where and when I bought the ingredients. But this weekend’s cheeseball set a new record in cost-effectiveness, probably because I had to improvise under deadline.

I’m not going to suggest this as a recipe, because it wasn’t the best cheeseball I ever made. But it worked, and here’s the secret: As long as you’ve got a cream cheese base, at least one  tangier cheese to mix in, and some garlic powder, it’s pretty hard to screw up.

In this case, I started with the remains of an 8-pounce brick of cream cheese, about 3/4 of a package. I usually stock up on these when they’re priced at $1 or less. I added some swiss almond cheese spread that had been hanging out in the fridge for weeks (maybe even months), and -- sad but true -- a chunk of store brand Velveeta-style cheese. Pressed for time, I forgot to put in the garlic powder. And yet people still ate it.

Total cost? Less than $2.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Frugal brain farts

Several years ago I made the mistake of super-sizing a store discount by signing up for a charge card. At the time I thought I was being really smart, picking up four early Christmas gifts for a total of $16. But then I neglected to pay the bill on time and got socked with a $16 late fee -- doubling the cost of my “great deal.”

I thought I’d learned my lesson, but apparently not, because just last month I made the same mistake trying to get a better deal on a dress Rowan needed for something or other. (The “no new clothes” vow primarily applies to me, though I do get most of our kids’ clothes secondhand as well.) At any rate, the bill rode a wave of chaos into the house and was misplaced just long enough for me to forget about it until it was past due. I don’t remember what the original savings was, but I’m sure it was less than the $20 late fee.

I know that these days there are at least as many ways for consumers to "beat the system" as there are ways to get screwed, but experiences like these make me think I’m better off opting out of that game. It’s time to return to the days when I carried more library cards than credit cards in my purse.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No new clothes update

When I decided to go a year without buying myself any new clothes, it didn’t occur to me that I might shed 45 pounds in the first five months of the year.

I still haven’t bought any new clothes. Which means that I‘m scanning the racks at the local thrift shops with greater urgency these days. The hardest thing to find is workout clothes, which I’m now wearing much more often. Might have to target some garage sales in some high-end subdivisions to find more of that stuff.

The one thing I might let myself buy new (in addition to undergarments) is a pair of running shoes. Now that I’m regularly jogging 10 miles a week or so, I think decent footwear could be considered a piece of equipment. I’m still holding out for a used swimsuit, though.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The economics of homeschooling

It’s that time of year again, when we pause to consider how the kids’ education is coming along and whether they’d be better off at home (like the younger three) or in school (like their big sister, who’s finishing up her sophomore year at the public high school down the road.)

Cost has never been a big factor in these discussions -- so far -- but homeschooling is definitely intertwined with our family’s frugality. The most obvious way homeschooling cuts costs is by eliminating the need for a closetful of trendy clothes for each kid. (Rowan, who was homeschooled through eighth grade, continues to create most of her funky and often-complimented wardrobe out of garage sale and thrift shop finds.) It’s also cheaper to feed kids at home than at a school cafeteria. (Though Rowan usually takes her lunch, and would qualify for 40-cent reduced-price lunches if we ever got around to filling out the form.)

These savings can easily be balanced out by the expense of buying textbooks and other educational materials, but not necessarily. A library card and a little ingenuity can go a long way toward a child‘s education.

When I think of how homeschooling intersects with the natural thrift philosophy, though, those aren’t the factors that strike me. It’s not the cost savings so much as the economic efficiencies.

In a real-life learning laboratory, you can unleash kids’ curiosity and creativity on actual problems that need solved. Like learning how to construct a rain garden to fix a backyard drainage problem, a project that fascinates Colleen. Or designing a bridge over a small ditch that can accommodate not only a wheelbarrow but a garden tractor, a project that Ben will take the lead on. Cassie’s interest in losing weight has led her to keep a Weight Watchers-style food diary, an important health project that’s also improving her math and spelling skills.

And when it comes to art, we’re always considering function as well as form -- there are always birthday cards to make, rag-rug style potholders and pan hooks to construct and clothes and pillows to recycle into new pieces of wearable or usable art.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Shopping bag art

Here's my design for the Kroger Design a Reusable Bag contest. Actually, Kroger is the grocery chain I selected on the website; I'm not sure which Illuminati overlords are running the contest. If you want to enter, though, better hurry: You only have until 5 p.m. today to do it here.

(And if you want to buy my design on a cafepress bag, you can do that here.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Too cute to go in the soup

You’ll never find a heart-shaped potato in a bag of frozen french fries or a box of instant mashed potatoes. We found this one near the bottom of a 15-pound “thrify pack” with a label indicating the contents were “packed for” Golden Sands Farms in Plover, Wis.

Which makes me wonder: Did any human gaze upon this potato before we pulled it out of the sack? Probably not, because you'd think they'd have wanted to set it aside -- especially after President Obama made a big fuss about a heart-shaped potato he got from an audience member on the David Letterman show last year.

I couldn't find a web site for Golden Sands Farms in Plover, Wis., though I did find a reference to a hog farm with that name. But here's a highly detailed look at the central Wisconsin potato harvest that indicates machines dig the potatoes, scoop them up and pour them into trucks that then unload themselves. There does appear to be a point in the process involving human beings sorting taters whizzing by on a conveyer belt -- but it's not clear to me whether that's standard practice or whether that occurred at the smaller of the two farms the guy visited.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Finally: the perfect compost tote

When I look back to past failed composting attempts, I can’t help wondering how much of our problem was due to having an inadequate compost container.

I’ve always refused to buy a bucket specifically designed for carrying food scraps, yet I never found anything around the house that worked very well. A large plastic ice cream tub has both a lid and a handle, but the handle is too weak to carry much of a load. And it doesn’t help that it’s transparent.

I wonder how many times I’ve tossed one of these re-engineered coffee canisters in the recycling bin before I finally realized that I was holding the perfect compost tote right there in my hand.

Think about it: That side handle, built right into the container, is never going to fail you. Sturdy, well-fitting lid: Check. You can’t see through it. And it’s really the perfect size, because if a bucket of compost gets too heavy, you’re less likely to want to deal with it. And that‘s how the process can begin to break down, long before your compost does.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Clutter craft to the rescue

So we were supposed to make puppets for Colleen’s religious education class on Sunday, and as usual we didn’t have all the supplies we needed. But I really hate to go buy craft materials when there are so many things you can make out of crap hanging around the house.

The lesson was based on “The Big Brag,” a little known Dr. Seuss story in which wisdom is dispensed from a worm’s point of view. We had googly eyes and socks for the worm, but the eyes were way too small. So we either needed to make larger eyeballs or smaller worms. 

We decided to make smaller worms, by cutting strips from an old T-shirt and braiding them together. The end of each strip included a piece from the bottom hem of the shirt, and so when we tied those ends together it made a natural mouth flap. The googly eyes fit perfectly on top of the mouth flap.

The nice thing about this technique, which I learned from some long-forgotten book on making rag rugs, is that it requires no sewing whatsoever. You just tie the strips together at both ends.

As it turns out, we didn’t wind up doing the lesson or the craft due to a scheduling glitch. But Colleen loves her worm. And we’ve got a ready-made project for some other day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

New & Improved Bag Box

As previously reported, our recommissioned ramen noodle box did a dandy job as a plastic shopping bag container. Ours held up to 70 bags, easily accessible and ready for reuse. Most importantly, it kept migrant bags from cluttering up our house and vehicles, where they were at risk of being whisked away by the wind.

Our new bag holder doesn’t hold quite as many bags -- ours can tolerate about 60 -- but it doesn’t take up as much space, either. It’s basically a large kitchen trash bag box. The cardboard sunroof is just as good a compressor as the plastic covering on the noodle box, but less ugly -- especially after we covered it with wildlife pictures clipped from old magazines.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Another entry for the predator ad guidebook

The other day I found myself reaching for an unusually attractive member of the bottled beverage species, with psychedelic skin and one of those cute little Smart Cars printed on its thorax. “Green is smart!” read an emblem under the design. “Drink up and you could win!”

That’s when I noticed the ghastly orange fluid lurking beneath the surface. I’d nearly been had by an angler fish -- my daughter's suggested term for ads and marketing techniques designed to disguise products as somehow being good for the environment, even if they‘re not. An angler fish (pictured below) is a scary looking dude that lives deep in the bottom of the ocean, preying on tiny fish and other creatures it attracts with a luminescent stalk on top of its head. Once the prey gets close enough, the angler's jaws slam shut. (I was going to call this variety of predator ad a "green gila monster," but Rowan, the biology fan, pointed out that gila monsters aren't green. "Besides," she said, "they don't fool their prey -- they just pounce."

I’m not suggesting that Sunkist orange soda is dangerous, at least not in small doses. But it is on the "Eat This, Not That" list of the "20 most sugar-packed foods in America."  Consumed on a regular basis, over time, it could very well inflict damage such as cavities, obesity and diabetes.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Weighing the cost of obesity solutions

Lately I’ve been feeling squeamish about monitoring my weight loss on this blog. But then I see the Atlantic Monthly cover story on obesity, and I think, hey, if I’m working this problem from the inside out -- making mental changes that translate into physical results, as opposed to Marc Ambinder, who can’t seem to fathom how the national obesity problem could be solved without bariatric surgery for millions of people, at a cost of billions of dollars -- isn’t that information I should be sharing with people?

I’ve lost 40 pounds in 16 weeks on the Weight Watchers program, which cost me a little less than $160, or $4 a pound. Ambinder lost 85 pounds after $30,000 bariatric surgery, which works out to $352.94 a pound.
As a public health move, it would make a lot more sense to pay for millions of people to attend a Weight Watchers-style program than to have stomach-shrinking surgery. Not only would it cost much less, but it gives people time to gradually reduce their intake and make adjustments, both physically and mentally. And there’s that built-in support system.

Granted, Weight Watchers doesn’t work for everybody. My mom’s started and quit this program many times before. She’s losing much more slowly than I am, but this time she’s kept going despite enduring weeks in which she’s had to step on the scale after a weight gain. She’s dropped less than a pound a week, but over time that's added up to nearly 15 pounds. A slow pace, but at least she’s headed in the right direction.

As a frugal person, I hate the idea of paying somebody else to help me eat less. But the weekly weigh-in is a great way to stay accountable, and the points system is a fairly easy game that allows you to fit in occasional treats while rewarding you for good nutrition and exercise. There’s no doubt in my mind that my $160 has been well spent, not just because of the increased energy and mental clarity, but because at the time I started I was getting worried about my blood pressure -- not just the physical risks, but also the possibility of having to pay for long-term medication. Though I still have more weight to lose, those fears have since disappeared.

But enough about Weight Watchers. What I really wanted to share is a mental tip that recently helped me register a 3.4 pound loss after a week in I succumbed to five oatmeal cookies on one day and a bunch of pizza the next.

It wasn’t just the greatest comeback in my own personal dieting history, it was the only such comeback. In the past, I would have surrendered after a couple of binges like that. But this time, I reminded myself that though I’d suffered a couple of huge penalties, I was still in the game.

The most important difference is that I continued tracking my points even though I was devastated by the score. Then, I figured out how I could get back to where I wanted to be by the end of the week, by ramping up my exercise and decreasing my intake -- not by starving myself but by adding a bunch of zero-point veggies for a couple of days.

I knew I’d succeeded because the scoreboard in my tracking notebook said so. Sure enough, I was rewarded when I stepped on the scale.

Friday, April 30, 2010

More weird crap for the compost heap

Yes, those are balloons. According to the package, they are “100% natural biodegradable,“ so we’ll toss them in the compost heap (minus the plastic package) and see what happens.

At first I assumed this was another example of Corporate America jumping on the “Go Green” bandwagon. But it turns out that balloon litter is a big problem because of all those balloon releases at public events. Eventually what goes up must come down. Balloon fragments are commonly found among the debris gathered during the Center for Marine Conservation’s International Coastal Cleanup.

The balloon industry has been pushing biodegradable rubber balloons for years in an effort to improve its image among environmentalists, arguing in a widely cited article on the Internet that  balloon litter is “a disintegrating issue.”

Well, these used balloons are going in the compost today. We’ll see how they do against the  Sun Chips bag, which has a five-week head start. And our compost, by the way, is gaining momentum. When I turned the pile on a frosty morning earlier this week, I saw steam.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Price check reveals the bigger picture

I went looking for small trash can liners at Walmart yesterday, just to see what those cost these days. As I suspected, the four-gallon bags cost nearly 10 cents each -- which just happens to be my target price for both 13-gallon tall kitchen bags and 30-gallon standard trash bags.

What did surprise me, though, was how hard it was to even find the four-gallon size on the shelf. While large kitchen trash bags took up several feet of shelf space -- representing four brands, at least three different styles, and varying numbers of bags per box -- I could find only one box of the small bags, made by Glad. (Further searching eventually turned up a roll of cheaper bags on the bottom shelf.)

Obviously, despite the campaign to get everybody to switch to canvas shopping bags, most people who shop at this store still reuse plastic shopping bags to line their small wastebaskets. If Walmart ever succeeds in convincing customers to provide their own bags, you can bet it will have pallets of Great Value brand four-gallon trash bags waiting in the wings.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The insecurity tax in action

I almost never buy birthday cards, preferring to let the kids make them instead. It saves me money, and it’s a homeschool art project for them. But I needed to send gift cards out to a couple of nephews on a tight deadline yesterday. (Though one was several weeks late, the other stood an outside chance on arriving on the actual birthday.) Under the circumstances, I decided to cave in and buy a couple of cards.

I found a couple of workable 50-cent cards at Walmart. Then doubt set in. I don’t see these boys as often as my sister’s kids, and they don’t have much opportunity to view my frugality in the context of what I hope to be my other finer points. If several months go by and their only reminder of me is a cheap gift or birthday card, what impression do they form?

The reality, of course, is that they go for the gift card inside without giving the card a glance.  But I couldn‘t help taking a look at the midrange cards, just to compare. I wound up with a pair of “nephew” cards, one with a wisecrack about the kid being cooler than his dorky parents, and the other with a picture of a cute dog on the cover. I spent $5.00 on the cards -- a $4 insecurity tax for not sticking to my principles.

And the stupid thing is, in retrospect, I think one of the cheap cards would’ve actually been a better fit.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Making a chip bag disappear (or not)

The "World's First 100% Compostable Chip Package" is supposed to break down in 14 weeks. It didn't take nearly that long to break down my resistance to buying a bag of SunChips, despite the fact that they're priced way above my usual 10 cents-per-ounce standard for salty snacks.

I finally caved in and bought a bag on March 19, less than a week after I saw an online ad promoting the new bags. The chips are, after all, delicious. And I was curious to see how the bags would perform. The answer: In our case, not so hot. At least, not so far.

This may be as much a reflection on the poor internal combustion of our compost heap as anything else, but  when we dug up our SunChips bag yesterday after 31 days submerged in a stew of old oak leaves, weeds and food scraps, it looked ... well, like a filthy but otherwise uninjured chip bag.

But the test continues. Not just of the bag, but of our admittedly less-than-scientific composting skills. Before dunking the bag back under yesterday, we added a big dose of grass clippings and gave everything a good stir, which may help.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Plastic tumbleweeds

I saw another shopping bag blowing across the street the other day. Reminded me of a tumbleweed. Which made me wonder: How many wind-surfing plastic bags are on the move in this country at any given moment, versus how many tumbleweeds?

This is the kind of question that makes you want to upgrade to the Star Trek version of the Internet, because my superficial web surfing didn’t turn up any easy answers. (Though I did discover that some tumbleweeds are radioactive. Turns out that before they take flight they sink really deep roots, some of which tap into nuclear test and waste sites out West.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Global economic blowblack

The other day at work I edited a wire story saying that furniture prices are going up because of higher labor prices in Asia, along with increases in Pacific shipping rates. That strikes me as a good thing. Maybe once the planet’s supply of cheap human labor is exhausted, we can all get down to the business of figuring out how to live smarter without taking advantage of each other.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Settling for freebies

The good news: Got a free reusable shopping bag the other day. The bad news: It’s so ugly I haven’t been able to bring myself to use it. Somehow Tony the Tiger just doesn’t look right in muted colors.

Because of my innate reluctance to buy stuff, I’m always settling for whatever I eventually stumble across that’s cheap or free or sometimes, just there. This explains our kitschy dinner plates and those Tommy Hilfiger shirts I wore around the house but didn’t want to actually be seen in. (Luckily, I’ve lost enough weight they don’t fit anymore anyway).

I justify this practice by thinking of ugly-but-useful free crap as a “first draft” item. When I come across a suitable, more pleasing replacement, I strike the offending object from our lives.

The thing is, despite my past grumbling on this subject, I really do want to test drive a shopping bag. Especially after I saw yet another plastic bag blowing cross the park yesterday, no doubt on its way to join its friends in that enormous floating plastic-trash island that roams the Pacific.

So I think what I’ll do is try this out on my next stop at an Aldi store, where you’ve got to pay for grocery bags if you don’t bring your own. I hardly ever see anybody I know there anyway.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A bad play vs. a bad call at the grocery store

I’ve been in a slump lately in terms of my grocery game, but then yesterday at Meijer I was suddenly “feeling it” again, as Jim Renney, the small town Lex Luther of Stephen King‘s latest blockbuster, would say. Everywhere I looked I saw incredible opportunities. Or at least I thought I did. I guess my grocery goggles had come back, but my execution was still rusty, because the two maneuvers where I expected to make a big score didn’t pan out. One turned out to be a bad play on my part, while the other was definitely a bad call. In either case, ordinarily I would say it makes more sense to shrug it off and move on than to ruminate on what might have been. Trouble is, I like to learn something from my mistakes, and while I definitely learned -- or rather, was reminded -- that a coupon on the exterior of a package usually means you’re supposed to use it right then and there instead of on a future shopping trip, I’m still baffled by the two-pack of flavored Cheerios that promised, in big gawdy type, $2 off fruit it never delivered. Definitely a bad call, and I decided to take it up with the officials.

So I called Meijer, who said it was General Mills’ fault, since it was their promotion inside their packaging. And then I called General Mills, who said, essentially, “huh?” The person I spoke with couldn’t seem to track down the promotion I was holding in my hand, and suggested I mail it in so they could take a look at it. I sent digital photos via e-mail instead.

So, will General Mills rule in my favor? I suppose they’ll send me another coupon, hopefully a real one this time. Personally, I see the whole thing as a reminder that when you mess around with coupons, it’s easy to get burned. The best way out of my “slump” is to focus on the fundamentals -- meal planning and tracking my spending -- instead of hoping for a quick coupon score to raise morale. But I’m not too sorry for protesting the bad call, if it gets General Mills to correct a ripoff that might affect other people.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Self-imposed taxes

There are some taxes that have nothing to do with the IRS. In fact, you may not even be aware of them. But they cost you money just the same. See if any of these sound familiar:

The clutter tax -- This term, coined by my husband, has been in our family lexicon about as long as we’ve had kids. (Though we weren’t immune to clutter before, the problem certainly escalated from that point forward.) Basically, it applies anytime you buy something that you already have -- either because you didn‘t remember that you had it, or simply couldn‘t find it. A good example of this, for us, is duct tape. We almost always have a roll somewhere, but it’s usually been appropriated by one of the kids and relocated to some hidden location.

The disorganization tax -- I became aware of this one on Christmas Eve at Wal-Mart, where I was hunting for last-minute stocking stuffers. I have a time-tested formula for filling Christmas stockings, and usually I wrap this task up by November, having found everything I need at garage sales or on clearance. But I’d fallen behind this year, and so there I was, making decisions on the fly. I realized, as I stood in the check-out line, that I was about to be assessed a stiff fine for my lack of preparation.

This tax hits hardest, and therefore most noticeably, on gift-giving occasions like birthdays, Easter and Valentine’s Day. But I wonder if it doesn’t do more overall damage at dinner, which for many people, comes with an automatic lack-of-planning surcharge.

The insecurity tax -- This is another tax I associate with Christmas, but it applies anytime you pay extra because you’re worried about offending someone. There are some people on our gift list, for example, who are thrilled with a $2 book on tape (or CD) from the library sales rack. Other relatives might enjoy the same gift, but because there’s no precedent for secondhand presents at that gathering, I’d feel compelled to bundle the CD-pack with something else, like a shirt.

It can be horrifying to calculate the total cost of all these hidden, self-imposed taxes. But the good news is, most of them can be eliminated with better planning and resolve -- unlike the taxes assessed by the IRS.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Another nominee for the frugal bible

I keep wondering if I should try to wedge MFK Fisher into my frugal bible. She’s not a great fit, because you don’t get the sense she was naturally frugal so much as necessarily frugal during the lean years of the Depression and World War II. (The concluding chapter of her 1942 book, “How to Cook a Wolf,” suggests that readers imagine concocting such recipes as shrimp pate, even though the ingredients were then nearly impossible to find, much less afford. “This therapy, unconscious or deliberate, is known to any prisoner of war or woe,” she wrote.)

I can’t help thinking, though, that Fisher would be an improvement on Job, the rich Old Testament dude forced to suffer in an experiment Satan cooked up and got God to endorse. You can’t blame Job for whining, though he does go on and on about his troubles. Whereas Fisher, at least in her writing, retained her good humor while focusing on how to get through the darkest days without “living like earthworms ... existing as gracefully as possible without many of the things we have always accepted as our due: light, free air, fresh foods, prepared according to our tastes.”

Fisher saw hard times as a good time to espouse philosophies that would be a harder sell in times of plenty. She railed against American white bread, for instance, long before it was fashionable to do so, and criticized the notion that each meal must be “balanced” like a school cafeteria lunch. “Perhaps this war will make it simpler for us to go back to some of the old ways we knew before we came over to this land and made the Big Money,” she wrote.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Human flesh, at $4 a pound

That’s how much it cost me to lose 30 pounds on the Weight Watchers program: Around $120, or $4 a pound. And that’s because I did it in 12 weeks. Judging from what I hear at the meetings, that’s a fairly fast clip, so a lot of people are paying more -- sometimes quite a bit more -- per pound.

I’ve got to say, it’s a dandy program. As someone who’s tried focusing on calories or fat or carbs without much success, I think it makes a lot of sense to factor fiber into an overall equation that the company’s number crunchers have then reduced to a fairly simple points system. (I love the way you can add something to a food to make it less fattening. Just last week, Ben stirred some unprocessed bran into his ice cream and reduced the points value from 8 to 6.)

When it comes right down to it, though, once you get your informational materials, it seems like the primary reason to stick with the program is the weekly weigh-in. And it seems like there ought to be some way to achieve the same effect without paying close to $10 a week to have someone else chart your weight. But it’s not quite that simple. I could probably get my husband or my sister to do it, but then I could also probably talk them out of it if I had a particularly rotten week.

The other factor, for me, is that I feel like I‘m trying harder because I‘m paying to do this. Four dollars a pound. So far, I think it’s been well worth the price.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Blowin’ in the wind

I saw a shopping bag blowing across Main Street in Bluffton yesterday, and it made me wince, because even though I’m still suspicious of Big Business’ attempt to shift packaging costs and pollution guilt to the consumer, I do realize that these bags pose an environmental problem when they’re allowed to roam free like that. And they do, far too often. Blowing bags just aren’t that uncommon a sight.

But why is it that you never see plastic trash-can liners blowing across the street? Because people spend money on them, have a use for them, and perhaps most importantly, have a well-designed box to store them in. A 12-pack ramen noodle box takes care of the storage problem, and many people do use these bags in lieu of commercial wastebasket liners. Is the gimme factor the problem, then? Because the bags are free, they’re perceived to have no value, and thus people don’t treat them the same way they would plastic bags they’ve spent money on?

If that’s the case, maybe Big Business is right to shift the cost of shopping bags to consumers. But I’m still not buying it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

When did Easter become a second Christmas?

When I was a kid, the Easter Bunny confined his efforts to filling your basket. But now, at least in those households where the breadwinners still have good jobs, it seems like the basket has become the springtime equivalent of the Christmas stocking -- just a starting point. Or from the kids’ perspective, maybe it’s more like an afterthought. The good stuff is what spills out onto the table or floor, too big and expensive to be confined to such a quaint container. Checking the basket comes after you’ve examined that shiny new bike or video game system.

I’d been vaguely aware of this trend the past few years, but it came sharply into focus yesterday when it was revealed that our youngest child was grumbling about how “everything we get is suckish” compared to cousins and friends.

Here all this time I thought we were celebrating the arrival of spring with symbolic representations of new life. I can build a case for chocolate bunnies, or even springtime accessories like batting gloves or Frisbees, but they’ve got to fit both an Easter basket and our budget. Which, now that I think about it, does make Easter a lot like Christmas, because at our house Santa still confines his gifts to what he can wedge into a stocking.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A black hole in disguise

If there were a Journal of the American Academy of Clutter-Control Science, I’d feel compelled to file a report on the gravitational pull of that ramen-noodle box that’s been recommissioned as a plastic shopping-bag container.

It looks like an ordinary noodle box. But if you peer through the tear in the plastic cover, you can see a tightly compressed stack of neatly folded plastic shopping bags inside. Outside the container, where the usual laws of clutter physics apply, those bags would explode into an unwieldy mountain of airy nothing that would quickly scatter to the ends of the earth. Instead, they’ve been sucked into a deceptive black hole.

And it wants more. It sits there in the pantry, thrumming, sending out search-party signals that are somehow programmed through my eyeballs, seeking more and more and more. And its finding them: Crumpled plastic bags in the garage, the back of the van, the furnace closet. Only last week I averted my eyes, seemingly blind to their creeping presence. Now, once detected, they have no chance of escape. The awesome appetite of

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Terminating the urge to spend

We watched “Terminator II” again the other day, and now that I’m further removed from the nuclear nightmares of my Cold War childhood and one of our kids is about the same age as  John Connor in this movie, I found myself wondering if someday they’ll look back and see me the way Connor initially viewed his mom: a zealot who’d crossed over to complete nuttiness.

Sarah Connor was proven right when the Terminator showed up. The Great Recession, or whatever history ends up calling this period we’re living through, ought to be enough proof for anybody that it’s wise to live frugally,  no matter how much money you’ve got in your wallet or bank account. But sometimes I wonder if today’s kids -- including ours -- will go on a lifetime spending binge when this is all over, or when they‘re out there on their own, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why pay more to eat less?

It turns out that Fiber One now makes a snack bar with only 90 calories, two grams of fat and five grams of fiber -- which translates to only one point in Weight Watchers lingo. A box of Fiber One bars costs only about one-third as much as a box of Weight Watchers snack bars. But do I mention this helpful piece of information at my Weight Watchers meeting, or would that make me a poor sport?

Turns out I didn’t have time to stay for the meeting last night anyway. But I did weigh in: Another week, another two pounds. So that’s a little less than $110 spent, a little more than 28 pounds lost. If I can lose 1.6 pounds by next week, I’ll get in 30 pounds by the time I’ve spent $120, and keep up with my $4-a-pound average.

Monday, March 29, 2010

T-shirt cravings

Why am I suddenly craving a Butler T-shirt? Other than the fact that they made it to the Final Four, just like I predicted in my NCAA tournament bracket?

I like their teamwork and defense and connection to the movie “Hoosiers.” They’re fun to watch -- relentlessly attacking the basket in a way that feels both old and new at the same time. But I don't know the players' names, and I have no real connection to the school, other than knowing maybe two people who graduated from there. And of course I’ve vowed not to buy any new clothes this year, so unless I find a Butler Bulldogs shirt at Goodwill, it’s not even on my decision tree.

Still, this is exactly the sort of thing I think about when I’m looking over T-shirts at Goodwill. Do you buy a cool T-shirt if it’s from a school or team you have no real-world connection to? I once bought a Cleveland Indians shirt because its manager at the time, Eric Wedge, was a Fort Wayne guy. But I never wore it. Because even though I love baseball in general (and once loved the Cincinnati Reds in particular), I just never felt like “this is a day where I want to field comments about the Cleveland Indians.”

If I had a Butler shirt, I'd probably be wearing it right now. Or next weekend, during the Final Four. But would I feel like wearing it once the tournament was over? Probably not. Still, that’s the nice thing about buying used clothes. You never invest too much in a whim. And when you get tired of the stuff you do buy, you can always release it back into the collective pool of unwanted T-shirts so it can find a new home.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sludge for supper

In “Still Life With Crows,” a thriller by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, FBI agent Pendergast recreates the scene of an 1845 Indian massacre in Kansas using an ancient Eastern form of mystical meditation . He thinks there’s a connection between this historical event and a series of murders he’s investigating -- specifically, how the Indians suddenly appeared as if out of thin air to ambush the soldiers.

We were several hours into our own time-travel experiment this week when I found myself wishing I knew agent Pendergast‘s technique for mentally removing modern-day objects from your field of view. Because it’s really, really hard to pretend you’re a Depression Era family with nothing to eat but MFK Fisher’s recipe for “sludge” when you have all this other food sitting around the house.

Part of the problem is that Ben and I were the only ones running the experiment. So while we were choking down a gruel made of barley, a couple of strips of bacon, and an onion, the girls were making themselves peanut butter sandwiches and eating pretzels straight from the bag. It was really hard to picture a kitchen that didn’t have at least a dab of peanut butter in the bottom of a jar, or a couple of eggs in the ice box.

But sludge isn’t something you eat when you have other options. “There comes a time when helpful hints about turning off the gas when not in use are foolish, because the gas has been turned off permanently, or until you can pay the bill,” Fisher writes in her 1942 book “How to Cook a Wolf.” “And you don’t care about knowing the trick of keeping bread fresh by putting a cut apple in the box, because you don’t have any bread and certainly not an apple, cut or uncut. And there is no point in planning to save the juice from canned vegetables because they, and therefore their juices, do not exist.”

It’s a time, she says, to use the metaphor that frames her book, when the wolf is at the door, with “one paw wedged firmly in what looks like a widening crack.”

In our experiment, Ben ate two bowls of Fisher’s sludge -- which really should’ve had a few more wilted vegetables in it to be authentic -- before deciding he’d rather just fast until midnight, when I promised him a cheeseburger. I stuck to the regimen, and though the first bowl tasted like dishwater, by the second serving, with a little more salt, I found myself thinking that barley is a worthy grain, deserving of more attention than its bit role in my usual recipe for vegetable soup.

By late afternoon, though, I was really eager to have something else -- anything else, even just a dab of peanut butter or a single pretzel. And that was when I realized just how much better off we are even now, in supposedly hard times, when we open the fridge and think there’s nothing to eat or can’t imagine what we could possibly make for dinner -- we still have all these bits and pieces of this and that that look awfully good when the alternative is sludge.

Friday, March 26, 2010

No impact on shopping bag conundrum

So I finally finished “No Impact Man,” and the first question that comes to mind is this: Should I take back what I said a few weeks ago about plastic shopping bags?

My point at the time: It’s all well and good that people use their own canvas shopping bags, but what are they going to use to line small trash cans around the house? If you stop accepting store-issued plastic shopping bags -- and businesses then stop providing them -- but you then buy plastic liners for your trash cans, has anything really changed, other than consumers picking up an extra expense as businesses eliminate one?

In the weeks since I wrote that, I have to admit that our plastic shopping bag stash had gotten out of hand. We just weren’t using them as quickly as they were coming in, and the one bag where I kept the other bags was overflowing onto the floor. If I take Colin Beaven’s advice, I stop worrying about what I line my bathroom trash can with because I eliminate bathroom trash, along with every other kind of trash. And if I’m not ready for that step, then maybe I could do the next best thing: Eliminate the liners. Unfortunately, I’m not yet that enlightened, either. (I’ve got a chewing gum phobia, and I can’t stand the sight of gum stuck to ... well, anything, not even a trash can. Anybody up for a movement to eliminate chewing gum from the planet? I’d be all over that one.)

Anyway, here’s how I’m adapting at this point: I’m not accepting as many plastic bags as I used to. And I’m storing the ones I do have, to be used as trash-can liners and dog-poop scoopers and so forth, neatly folded in a box, where they don’t take up nearly as much room. There are 26 bags in the box, which ought to last us a while. So I’m going to try not to bring anymore home from the store for a while.

But I’m not going to take back what I said. Because when it comes to this plastic bag problem, I still feel like Big Business is trying to shift both the blame and the expense to individuals -- which sounds an awful lot like what happened in the days of the national anti-litter campaign, according to Colin Beaven’s book.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Atomic fashion fantasies

So my mom complimented me on my purple shirt and scarf combo the other night, and I uncharacteristically refrained from saying, “Thanks, I got it at Salvation Army.” At the time I thought that was a sign of progress, because I feel like I can never just accept a compliment  without revealing some backstage insider information that somehow diminishes what’s on stage. My pride in finding cool stuff that costs next-to-nothing is often interpreted with suspicion by the audience, especially when my mom is in the front-row seat.

Reviewing the game film of this encounter, I now think I should’ve spoke up. Defended the dignity of gently-used clothing. But at the same time, I also harbor this fantasy: What if, as I remake my smaller-sized wardrobe from secondhand garments that span the globe as well as generations, I could quietly rack up enough compliments so that one well-timed revelation had the impact of a hundred smaller ones?

Just a fantasy. But it’s fun to think about.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making dough, on the clock

Regarding the question of whether it really takes more time to make things from scratch, when you factor in the time it takes to shop for and earn the money to pay for a prefabricated alternative: Consider today’s cinnamon rolls, prepared for yet another spring break sleepover.

Usually I don’t think about how much time it takes to make cinnamon rolls, because I make the dough ahead of time, usually for pizza the night before. But this morning I walked into a kitchen apparently devoid of any actual food, with only various components stored in their various containers in various cupboards and a fridge, and 40 minutes later the cinnamon rolls were in the oven and the frosting was made.

I guess that seems like a long time, compared to unfurling dough from a tube and squeezing icing from a plastic packet. But time is relative. Standing in front of a Red Box DVD vending machine with a bunch of chattering, arguing kids last night felt longer than 40 minutes of quiet spent alone in the kitchen this morning. The prospect of entering a Wal-Mart with this same herd just to get a tube of dough and icing, when we had all the stuff that goes into that tube already at home, felt like it would drain another hour from my life -- maybe not in actual ticks registered on a clock, but in the form of a stress penalty to be deducted  from the sum of my days.

Besides, making the frosting is easy: Just whisk a tablespoon of milk into a small bowl of powdered sugar with a fork. I sometimes put more effort into it than that, but when you’re competing against tube-packet icing, why bother?

As for the dough, it doesn’t take long if you make a small batch and reduce the steps down to the most basic: Mix some warm wet stuff (oil and milk and water) with something sweet and salty (a little bit of sugar and an even smaller bit of salt) and yeasty (like, say, yeast), and then just pour on the flour, mixing with one hand and pouring with the other until the dough‘s not sticky and your other hand wants to join in. Now it‘s play dough time, which is usually good for wiping out at least two stress penalties.

When you‘re ready to form the rolls, start by pretending your’re making a pizza, spreading the dough out on an oiled surface. (In fact, at this point you could still elect to change your plan and make a pizza. But if you’re still set on cinnamon rolls, slather on butter instead of tomato sauce and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar instead of cheese.) Now roll it up into a tube, slice it with your play-dough knife, set each slice on its end in a greased pan, butter again, sprinkle with more cinnamon and sugar, and it’s ready for the oven. You’ve crossed the finish line, with your sanity intact.

By the way: Let the kids put their own icing on the rolls when they come out of the oven. It’s one less thing you’ve got to deal with, and they’ll think it’s fun.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On sisters, small towns and shrinking

I took my Great Aunt Minnie a card the other day for her 99th birthday, and since she lives at the same nursing home as my grandmother, I stopped in Grandma’s room first to see if she wanted to tag along. It’s 100 feet down the hall, but Grandma, who’s 97, never leaves her room except for preprogrammed activities such as lunch or church services.  There was no official party planned for Minnie, so I’m not sure Grandma  would’ve embarked on the journey to wish her sister happy birthday if someone else didn’t make it happen.

As we creeped along (Grandma’s using a walker now), I found myself wondering which of her sisters Grandma was closest to. Minnie is a reasonable candidate. They were nearest in age and once shared a bed with a set of toddler twin brothers. But Grandma had a lot of sisters to choose from. Thirteen siblings lived to adulthood, and I’m thinking half of them were sisters. With that many potential playmates under one roof, you probably gravitate toward those who are most like you, just like on a playground.

In a family as large as Grandma’s, my sister and I would be at opposite ends of the personality continuum. There’s an age difference of eight years, but there’s more to it than that. She trends red and I lean blue. She’s stylish, as they say here in small town America, whereas the term most likely applied to me, in the local vernacular, is “different.” (That’s a word that takes in a lot of territory in this territory, but I like to think I’m not scary-different so much as puzzling-different.)

Traci’s the only sister I’ve got, though. So we hang out quite a bit, glossing over our differences. She’s my single biggest supporter on my quest to lose weight. (Bob is supportive, too, but since he’s always accepted me no matter what my size, he’s not as maniacal about it.) Lately we’ve even been working out together, ostensibly training for a 5K run later this summer. 

The only problem: Any day now, Traci’s going to start bugging me about buying new clothes now that I‘ve dropped a size or so. At which point I’ll be forced to reveal that I’ve pledged to only buy secondhand clothing this year. To avoid this collision of universes,  I’m going to need to step up my scouting trips to Goodwill and Salvation Army. Because I’ve now lost 26.4 pounds, and I’ve only got like maybe three things that still fit.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March Madness sans TV

Turns out Ben was never able to get that digital converter working. So I figured we’d cave in and buy one, but there were two problems with that plan: A. Nobody has digital converters in stock anymore, because there are like maybe two other households in the western world that  aren’t plugged into the digital TV network. “We just don‘t have much demand for those,” one sales guy explained.  B. The one store we found that does carry digital converters was charging 50 percent more than the going rate back when Uncle Sam was sending out those $40 coupons. (We got one, but could never get it to work.)

So we watched basketball for four straight days on the computer, connected to And you know what? It wasn’t bad. The picture sharpened up quite a bit by Day Two, and it was cool that we could click on whichever game we wanted to watch. The only real aggravation, other than the fact that IU once again failed to make the tournament, was the dearth of commercials. They just repeated the same ones over and over. And boy, were they effective: Ben talked me into buying Coke Zero when what I really wanted was Diet Coke, and if we‘d walked by a display of algae-growing-biofuel kits, we would’ve bought one of those, too.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The zombie ads have our number

This is beginning to seem like a bad horror movie, where just when you think you’ve survived the monster attack, its big brother shows up. And then its cousin. I really thought that first encounter with a 1950s Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial on a DVD of old Superman shows -- which led to all four kids gulping down corn flakes after the show -- was a fluke. That was five years ago, and I chalked it up to coincidence as much as anything; I hadn’t bought corn flakes for years, but Bob had just happened to find a big box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes on sale a few days before.

Then a few weeks ago I discovered that Ben’s sudden desire for Ovaltine came shortly after viewing a Joe Namath ad (featuring kids who’d now be a little older than me) on a video of classic sports commercials. And then yesterday as were leaving the grocery store, he admitted that his purchase of a bag of Nips candy -- which he’d talked up as a good choice because each piece had only 30 calories -- was influenced by a commercial from an old VHS tape of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” episodes we recorded in the late 1990s.

So now I wonder: Are our kids particularly vulnerable to zombie ads because we don’t watch much television? Is nostalgia a factor? Or is simple curiosity about seeing something on a store shelf that you thought existed only in some hokey vintage take on the past?

Ben shrugged as I asked these questions. He was sucking on a Nips lozenge, reporting the change in sensation as the outer toffee coating dissolved, exposing the chocolate center.  “Well, it’s only a factor if the product still exists,” he said.

It‘s almost like zombie ad hunting has become a goofy hobby of his. Except I don’t think he’s the one holding the gun.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Bob Knight approach to coupons

Coupons are the grocery shopper’s equivalent of basketball’s three-point shot.

It’s the strategy people turn to when they need to make up some lost ground in their grocery budget. It’s a quick way to score a lot of flashy-looking convenience foods, and it provides a huge rush of adrenalin and momentum.

Trouble is, if you don’t keep track of the big picture -- how much you’re spending over time, week in and week out -- then ultimately a periodic big coupon score, no matter how impressive at the time, doesn’t amount to anything more than a showboating playground move.

The Rick Pitinos of the grocery shopping world match coupons with sales and make a killing. I guess I’m more of a Bob Knight grocery shopper, forcing coupons to be role players within a larger system.

During my college years at Indiana University, Steve Alford was one of the nation’s best three-point shooters, but he didn’t get to pull the trigger until he ran past half a dozen screens in Knight’s now-dated motion offense.

My version of the motion offense is my “Four Shirts and a Skirt” menu-planning system (which I've really only just touched on so far in this blog). The emphasis is on scoring meals to help us beat our weekly budget target. Coupons can be a formidable tool within this system, but only if they’re used on the right item under the right conditions. In any given week, I might use one or two coupons. Sometimes none at all. And yet we consistently spend no more than $15 per person per week -- and often come in under that, enough so that our dining-out budget is funded solely by leftover grocery money.

Too bad there’s not a March Madness of grocery shopping. I’d love to pit my approach against the coupon-gunners. Maybe I’d get smoked, like Knight’s teams did in later years. But I don’t think so.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The price of labor vs. the cost of automation

So I enter Wal-Mart needing a treat for the younger girls’ book club. Option A, appearing on our right as we enter the store: Pre-made St. Patrick’s Day mini cupcakes, $2.50 a dozen. Probably need two. Problem solved, at a cost of $5.

Option B: Replenish our sugar supply and make our own cupcakes. Cost: $2.12, plus labor.

It’s the murkiness of the labor cost that complicates the equation. It was already 8 p.m. as we stood in the store Tuesday night, weighing our options. Opening the kitchen bakery would keep us up ‘til 10, by the time we got the mess cleaned up, or else require an early morning shift. The Wal-Mart cupcakes wouldn’t even need to be carried in from the van. They could spend the night in the back, and be ready to go in the morning.

But then we’d still be out of sugar.

We took a vote. The sugar, radiating magnetism even when unadorned, won -- on the condition that everybody pitch in.

And they did. Ben mixed up the batter, I mixed up the icing, and the girls frosted and sprinkled green sugar while I started cleanup. That one batch of a white cake recipe made two dozen mini cupcakes, one dozen regular cupcakes and we still had leftover batter and frosting for some future snack. Not to mention all that sugar.

I could run the numbers to prove the superiority of this DIY project, but I think the real benefit, in addition to the teamwork exercise, was that ... it forced me to actually wash the dishes. By hand.

I’ve gone for long stretches in my adult life without a dishwasher, and I don’t really mind doing dishes under those conditions. But there’s something about the presence of a dishwasher that puts me into factory-worker mode -- rinse, load, start machine. Unload, always in the same order, stack items, always in the same place. Repeat sequence again and again and again. Reminds me of the summer I worked in a pretzel plant as a teenager.

Washing dishes, on the other hand, is an exercise in problem solving. It uses a different part of your brain. And while it’s not something I abhor, I do find it hard to flip the switch between these two mindsets. So as long as the factory workers tending the industrial device keep everything moving along the assembly line, we cram everything into the dishwasher. But when there’s a breakdown in the process -- like the other night, when we already had a sinkful of dishes to feed the dishwasher before we started in on cupcake production -- it‘s time to flip the switch.

I’d forgotten how satisfying it can be to clean a plate by hand, to loosen up the accumulated detritus of a meal and scrub it away. If there really is some kind of zen connection between what goes in on your physical environment and what goes on between your ears, what happens if most of your daily household tasks are those of an automaton, tending various machines that suck the crap off soiled clothes, dishes and flooring surfaces? What about the complex congealed configurations that defy the machine? Do we just keep feeding them back in, hoping for better results next time?

All I know is, my mind felt quieter after scrubbing those dishes than it does after I feed the beast. The girls were awfully proud of their cupcakes, much more so than if we'd come bearing tiny cakes in plastic clamshells.

And now that CBS Sports’ won’t let me log in to make my last-minute March Madness picks, I’m gonna have to fill out the brackets that came in the newspaper. By hand.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When new is cheaper than used

So how do I feel when I see new shirts on clearance at Wal-Mart for less than what I just spent on secondhand T-shirts for the kids at Goodwill?

Well ... a little conflicted, sure. At first. But then you take a closer look, and the material feels chintzy, even for a T-shirt. And the styles are all so ... Wal-Mart. (Or rather, Wal-Mart as envisioned by the people who run the sweatshops in Asia.) Whereas the styles in any thrift shop are as diverse as the people who shop there. And even with a few washings in their past, I feel confident that the kids’ “new” shirts would outlast those new shirts in an endurance contest.

Besides, when I’m uncomfortable with the prices at a Goodwill or Salvation Army store,  I simply subsidize the purchase with money from our charity fund. That changes the equation, so that it wasn’t really a case of spending $3.75 apiece for used shirts when I could’ve paid $3 a pop for new ones. I paid $1.50 each, and kicked in a $2.25 donation.

And I feel a lot better about where that money’s going, as opposed to the money I would’ve spent at Wal-Mart.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Heeding the wake-up call

I’m finally reading “No Impact Man,” and one of the ways it’s resonating with me is that sense of waking up to the things that are holding us back -- not so much in an environmental kind of way, though that’s obviously a big part of what Colin Beaven intends, but in a positive psychology kind of a way. This trend among some psychologists to shift their focus from the most deficient end of the human hang-ups continuum to that huge glut of us stuck near the midpoint -- able to function in society and even, on the surface, appearing “successful,” yet too bogged down with mental baggage to reach our full potential.

In the book, one of the things Beaven keeps coming back to is what a soul-sucking machine their giant TV (in a small New York apartment) had become.

In my case, it’s the realization that instead of feeding one human body all these years -- which ought to be an easy task in a society where food is abundant -- I’ve been feeding various whiny components of my personality. So I’ve not only been physically bogged down by the extra weight that’s accumulated, but mentally and emotionally distracted by all these interior battles over food. It’s like I’ve got four hungry kids in my kitchen, each with their own desires and agendas, and inside my skull I’ve got another crowd vying for attention.

It’s not a debilitating condition, exactly. We‘ve managed to live frugally in spite of my overeating. It’s not even as much of a social stigma as it used to be, because so many Americans are fat these days. Everybody’s doing it, just like everybody (except us) has a TV. But when you suddenly wake up and realize what’s going on, it’s mind boggling to see how much we Americans can get in our own way. Not just sometimes, but methodically, as if we were programmed to only go so far.

Of course, it’s one thing to see a problem and another thing to solve it. For Beaven and his wife, getting rid of the TV opened up vast vistas of free time, which they filled with more meaningful activities. (And that’s just one small corner of their no-impact experiment.)

For me, it’s been a process of identifying the whiners in my head, and deciding which of them to quit feeding. I’m pretty much down to just two competing interior voices at this point: a primitive presence that panics over hunger, and a childish, spoiled entity that wants to have its own way, damn the consequences. I make sure my inner cavewoman eats first, filling up on low-cal foods that keep her from freaking out, and only then do I appease the inner child with some small treat.

It’s a relationship that’s working out on the scale, which registers a loss of a little over 24 pounds. Naturally it comes with a price: A little less than $90 to Weight Watchers, which acts as my drill sergeant, weight-loss program subcontractor and shrink.

I can feel the interior baggage melting away along with the pounds. I’m still not sure what, other than attempting to run a 5K this summer for the first time in about 30 years, I’m going to do with my emerging “positivity.” But whatever it is, it sure feels like it’s going to be fun.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Things they don't teach you in school

Bob and I were in Marshall, Mich., this weekend for an anniversary getaway, and when it came time to pick up something to take back to the kids, we did what we usually do: Tracked down the local Goodwill store and bought everybody a T-shirt.

Ben's had a list of oddball factoids under the heading "Things they don't teach you in school." For example: "The longest one-syllable word in the English language is 'screeched.' " I have no idea if that's true or not, but here's a piece of advice that ought to be dispensed in mandatory high school consumer-education classes:  Never order a large drink in a fast food restaurant that allows unlimited refills.

Seems obvious enough. And yet as we ate lunch in a Taco Bell yesterday, where I uncharacteristically ordered a soda (preferring usually to place my value-menu order to go and drink my own beverage), it seemed like we were the only customers who weren't slurping from oversized cups. And this was in Michigan, a state with a famously devastated economy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can Sun Chips make you a better person?

I’ve never been a successful composter, despite probably a dozen attempts over two decades. The one brew-mound that got closest to actually producing soil wound up as my most spectacular failure, obliterated by a bulldozer during a flood-prevention excavation project. (When the kids sled down the hill in the backyard these days, I sometimes think about how a few feet under all that fresh white snow lies a fetid pocket of pumpkin corpses and banana skins.)

But last night I trekked out to the most recent half-formed compost heap, inspired by, of all things, an advertiser. I’d clicked on a Sun Chips video showing how its new biodegradable bag supposedly decomposes in a compost bin, and was encouraged to do my part by starting my own compost bin, that I could then presumably drop my new Sun Chips bags in. I didn’t rush out to buy a bag of Sun Chips, but I was suddenly overcome with an urgent need to see if I could disintegrate an empty carton of Full Moon Pale Ale.

I tore the box up and mixed it in with some fuzzy corn tortilla dough and a few wilted lettuce leaves. Maybe this will be the year everything comes together, after it all falls apart.

In the meantime, though, I’m left with this nagging feeling that somehow Sun Chips has managed to plant something besides sweetness and light in my brain. Is it possible that the people who run this company are so well-intentioned that they only want to save the planet? Or am I going to start sleepdriving to the nearest convenience store, murmuring “Must have Sun Chips... must have Sun Chips....?”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Recipe from the not-so-good old days

The odds were stacked against yesterday’s breakfast experiment. MFK Fisher’s tomato soup cake sounded so unappealing that even I wasn’t looking forward to eating it so much as probing it. The recipe comes from her 1942 book “How to Cook a Wolf,” about cooking and living in times of extreme deprivation. One chapter’s called “How to Be Cheerful Though Starving.” This recipe comes from a chapter called “How to Comfort Sorrow.”

I like to run these financial fire drills from time to time, to explore what we might do if things got really tough and we weren’t just frugal but financially fragile. I’d actually been wondering if I could convince everybody to spend a couple of days eating nothing but Fisher’s so-called “sludge” -- from the chapter called “How To Keep Alive” --  but figured the oddball tomato soup cake was a better place to begin.

It didn’t help that Ben began inquiring about breakfast the night before, having noticed that our weekly allotment of cereal was running low. When I told him I was making a cake, he said, “Oh, great. It will probably have sauerkraut in it. Or pieces of ground-up broccoli or spinach leaves.”

He had cause to be suspicious. Though I’ve never hidden broccoli or spinach in cake, I have put sauerkraut in a chocolate cake before -- but only because the recipe called for it. “Besides,“ I noted, “you liked that one.”

I couldn’t help thinking he would’ve enjoyed making this cake, too. When you add the baking soda to the can of tomato soup, it starts fizzing up out of the can, kind of like those baking soda-vinegar volcanoes he likes to make. But there was no way I was going to blow this cake’s cover until they tried it. Stirring the brownish-pink batter, I thought it was probably a lost cause. If nothing else, we could always hide Buddy‘s pills in it once we ran out of leftover rigatoni.

But it looked a lot better when I pulled it out of the oven. The pink tint was gone, leaving what appeared to be an ordinary brown loaf of something or other.  It tasted vaguely like gingerbread -- probably from the ginger and nutmeg -- and so that‘s what I called it: “Poor Man‘s Gingerbread.” The earliest breakfasters -- Bob, Rowan and Cassie -- had no objections. Ben and Colleen initially resisted a taste test. But when Cassie and I got back from her speech therapy, Colleen greeted us in the driveway, saying, “Hey Mom, you‘ve got to make some more of that gingerbread!” Ben admitted it wasn’t bad, even after I revealed the secret ingredient. We’ll probably make it again, if for no other reason than I want to let the kids do the foaming tomato soup experiment.

    Tomato Soup Cake
3 tablespoons butter or shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon of a mixture of nutmeg, ginger and cloves
1 can tomato soup
2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups raisins, nuts, or dried fruit.*

Cream butter and sugar. Add the soda to the soup and the spices to the flour, then alternate adding these mixtures to the butter and sugar. Stir well and bake in two loaf pans at 325 degrees.

*We made one loaf plain and one with cut-up dried plums. The plain one was fine, so you don‘t have to add this stuff if you don‘t want to.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Making lunch when the pantry is bare

Well, we never really get to that point here in America, do we? Even those of us who hover in the reduced-price school lunch socioeconomic segment of the population usually have a little something hanging around the fringe of the fridge. Even some of the people who stand in line at the food bank aren’t so hungry that they’ll accept a free loaf of wheat bread when they prefer white. (And those who do take it sometimes wind up tossing the wheat loaves in the parking lot on the way to the cars that they can still apparently afford to drive. This information comes secondhand but off-the-record from a food bank employee.)

 So yeah, while my first thought yesterday was “we don’t have anything for lunch,” what that really meant was we don’t have any of the usual lunch stuff, like boxed macaroni and cheese. Or bread. (Ironically, one of the reasons we remain breadless this morning is that the K-Mart where we bought milk and Little Caesar‘s pizza last night after the kids‘ taiko drum class was out of wheat bread. All they had was white, and we decided we‘d rather go without than eat white bread.)

But we did have oranges, really juicy Honey Bells Grandma and Grandpa brought back from Florida last week. And a few low-fat oatmeal cookies I’d made the day before. That could be a lunch right there, especially if you had a glass of milk with your cookies, but we were out of milk, too. And growing up as an American, I kept trying to envision some kind of sandwich to  fill out the plate. Finally, poking in a couple of Tupperware containers, I discovered one chicken patty and the remains of some biscuit dough. I cut the chicken patty in three equal peace-sign segments and dropped each piece on a spoonful of biscuit dough, then topped each of those with a chunk of store brand cheese loaf I’d previously cut into half-ounce chunks, followed by another spoonful of biscuit dough. (Actually, I was using a rubber scraper by the last one, it really took every smidgeon of dough to make these chicken-cheese biscuits.)

So naturally, the kids thought this was the greatest lunch we‘d had in weeks. Normally they practically spear each other with forks to get their fair share of a package of chicken patties, but because the biscuits obscured their vision, I don‘t think they even realized they only had a third of a patty, so they didn‘t feel deprived.

And with the free oranges, 58 cents worth of ingredients for the chicken biscuits, and 7 cents for each homemade cookie, the total cost for all three home-schooled kids lunches came to 65 cents. Less than 22 cents each. Nearly half the cost of Rowan’s theoretical 40-cent reduced-price school lunch, if we were ever get around to filling out the paperwork.