Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the knife-wielding reporter who doesn’t know how to cook

I’m not sure how this could have happened, but I became a 33-year-old woman without ever having cut apart a whole chicken.

This astounds me given the regularity with which my mother would divvy up a chicken and oven fry it, including chickens she and my dad used to raise on the farm.

But since establishing my own presence in the kitchen, I’ve been a frozen-boneless-skinless-chicken-breast kind-of girl.

Until last night.

I had a fresh buttercup squash from my in-laws’ garden I wanted to bake, and decided it would be delish served with fried chicken.

I made a special trip to the grocery store to buy a box of Oven Fry (I won’t tell you how long I stood there debating between that and Shake N Bake) and the chicken. As I compared the package of cut-apart chicken pieces and the whole chicken, my frugal side won out.

I got out my butcher knife and a cutting board, unwrapped the chicken, and panicked.

I had no clue what I was doing.

I grabbed my Betty Crocker cookbook, the one my mother gave me when I was first starting out on my own. The poultry section includes a six-step, photo illustrated guide on “How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken.”

Oh so easy, right?

Unfortunately for me, I got lost on step one — to place chicken breast down on a cutting board — as I wasn’t really sure which side was the breast.

Once that was determined, I managed to cut off each wing. I ungracefully hacked off the legs, accidentally de-boning one of them. I became confused again at which side was the neck. I pleaded to no one in particular for help as I sawed the back from the breast (pretty sure I did not do that correctly) and became really confused at what the “keel bone” was. But in the end, I managed to dissect my chicken and bread it.

I totally ran out of the Oven Fry by the time I got to the breasts, so used some leftover Shore Lunch to bread them. It worked, but I wouldn’t really recommend it …

My husband declared it delicious and well-cooked. The kids ate the the small shreds put on their plates (I was too worried about bone fragments to give them whole pieces). Owen also loved the squash (He called it “cheese”).

I’m sure this all sounds ridiculous to any accomplished (or even not so accomplished) home chef, but I’m feeling pretty proud of my poultry escapades.

Here’s hoping practice makes perfect.

Tapping my inner (inexpensive) artiste

This summer, we sacrificed our guest room/office/storage space and transitioned both kiddos into their own rooms. In hopes of doing so as frugally as possible, I sold some of the former room’s contents (vases, candle sconces, an office chair) through an online garage sale page, and put the proceeds toward an IKEA trip, where I got some great storage shelves that will hopefully be useful for years to come.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on decorative accessories for the kids’ new rooms, though, seeing as I’d just sold a bunch of home decor items.  I know my kids’ tastes will change even more rapidly than my own.

Instead, I created some inexpensive art projects I wanted to share with you.

First up is Eve’s room, where I put her artistic talents to use. I purchased these super inexpensive NYTTJA frames from IKEA, and framed paintings Eve had made. The two larger pieces she painted on a trip to the Children’s Museum at Yunker Farm. The smaller piece  (framed in a coordinating pink) she made at home. They’ll be easy to switch out through the years.

Ideally I’d hang these closer together and closer to the bed, but, well, there were already nails in the wall …

A watercolor masterpiece …

It took me longer to figure out art for Owen’s room. Finally I made a trip to Hobby Lobby, where I found two 8- by 10-inch canvases for $4.

I wrapped the first canvas in a piece of scrapbooking paper I got for 25 cents. I was hoping this alone would create a funky art piece, but as my husband said, it just kind of looked like a present. So I pulled out some scraps of solid-colored cardstock and mimicked the spaceship shape featured in the printed paper, gluing them on the paper and tracing them with a black marker. You could do the same thing with purchased embellishments.

I would have rather created a truck or boat (something more transportation themed than space) but this seemed like the easiest — and only vertical — option.

For the second canvas, I used small bottles of acrylic paint I’ve had in my craft basket for ages (I think they cost about $1 each), and some sponge brushes. I divided the canvas into four quadrants using blue painters tape, painting each corner a different color. Again, I thought this might be all I’d need to do, but it didn’t look that great. I thought about painting a ball or animal in each rectangle, but soon realized I’m not that talented. Instead I used stencils to trace the letters of Owen’s name with a black paint pen. I could have stopped at that point, but decided to fill in the letters using black acrylic paint. At that point the white lines looked out of place, so I painted them black, too.

Considering I made this up as I went, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

Other ideas I’ve seen include framing scrapbook paper or patterned fabric (look for frames with mattes at thrift stores or dollar stores), melting color crayons onto a canvas, or using painters tape to write a child’s name on the canvas and letting them fingerpaint over it.

How have you created inexpensive art for your home? What frugal art ideas would you like to try?

Money Savin’ Mama: Spending challenge an eye-opener

I watched the cash register total creep upward as I fingered through the dollar bills in my envelope. The coupons I clutched in my hand brought the bill down enough that my cash covered the final total.

It was a different experience than I’m used to at the grocery store, usually swiping my plastic and not being overly concerned at the amount, knowing I’d been frugal in my choices. With cash, I was forced to stick to a limit and pass on impulse purchases.

It was also a bit of a victory. While I’d planned to replenish my cash envelope each week, we’d purchased three weeks of groceries on one week’s budget, plus a $20 bill.

Last month I wrote about my self-imposed spending challenge, to eat less expensively during the month of April. I gave myself a weekly limit of $103.20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s thrifty plan cost of food at home for a man, woman and 4-year-old. Baby Owen didn’t get a food allowance, though I did buy a box of single-grain cereal and two whole sweet potatoes for him.

In total, our family spent $188.38 at the grocery store in April, about 46 percent of my maximum allotment. We also ate more meals at home than we typically do.

One reason is the challenge morphed into a pantry-clearing exercise, a head start on my spring cleaning. The food reserves in my cupboards and deep freezer made up many of our meals’ main courses and side dishes during the month. I was truly surprised at how much money, in the form of food, was at my fingertips.

Our weekly cash outlay, then, went largely to fresh fruit, vegetables and milk, though I also restocked some staples like flour and oil, and bought several pounds of meat.

I cooked thrifty recipes suggested by the USDA, such as pizza meatloaf, cheese-stuffed baked potatoes and tuna macaroni salad. I also really liked the ingredient search at allrecipes.com to find dishes that called for what I already had on hand, including lasagna roll-ups and a breakfast skillet.

I’m confident the total amount of food we consumed, even with the pantry additions, stayed below the $103.20 weekly guideline.

Throughout April, I blogged about the challenge and lessons learned.

I realized in week one that it’s important to limit grocery store visits to one a week, if possible. That cuts down on temptation. Also, don’t forget your shopping list. That was a “duh” moment.

Plan out your meals, building menus around what you have on hand and what’s on sale. Group together recipes that use the same perishable ingredients. Avoid buying single-use ingredients that may expire before consumed.

Find a middle ground between cost and convenience. Money and time are both finite resources. Sometimes it makes sense to use more of one to gain the other. I’ve found frozen juice concentrate is a less pricey, though slightly more time intensive, option to cartons or jugs of juice. But packaged, seasoned rice and beans made more sense for our family than preparing them from scratch.

I think there’s also a middle ground between Mother Hubbard and having enough food hoarded to survive nuclear winter. How much money withers in your cupboard when it could have been used to pay down debt or cover other expenses?

Compare, compare, compare. In week three, my husband volunteered to do the shopping. One of the items I asked him to buy was fish fillets. I assumed frozen would be cheapest, but he found some fresh fish on sale that was less expensive per pound than its frozen counterpart. (In the end, he chose a 2-pound bag of frozen cod fillets that priced out just under $4 per pound.)

I am hopeful some habits will stick from the month-long trial. I planned out meals for the whole first week of May that still purged older items from the pantry and freezer. And though my May Day shopping list was long, the total was $45.94 – 45 percent of that thrifty budget.

Perhaps I’ll extend Eat Less Expensively April into Economizing Meals May.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two.

Eating Less Expensively: Week 4 recap

It appears our $30-a-week grocery bills caught up with us. During the final week of my self-imposed challenge to eat balanced meals on the cheap, our total grocery store outlay was $62.26.

Considering the intitial goal was to stay below the weekly federal thrifty food plan budget of $103.20 for our family of three (plus a baby), it’s silly that I’m disappointed in that figure, isn’t it?

We needed to stock up on some pantry staples this week, including flour and canola oil, graham crackers and peanut butter. Our meals included several recipes from the USDA booklet I’ve oft mentioned: baked cod fillets with cheese, crispy baked potatoes (FYI, they take longer to bake than the recipe says), and beef-noodle casserole. I also made enchiladas using a less costly seasoning packet vs. the canned sauce my normal recipe calls for. My hubby made “bachelor food,” a staple from his (and his uncle’s) college days. (Combine chicken, a box or packet of chicken-flavored rice, cream of chicken or mushroom soup, plus water, and bake).

I’m planning to grocery shop tomorrow, as Eat Less Expensively April comes to an end. And oh boy, is my list a looooooong one. But I’m hopeful some good habits learned this month will stick. I’ve already planned out meals for the next week, focusing on what was in my cupboard and fridge. I’ll buy what I need for the coming week, plus just a few bargains. It’s nice to see my pantry looking a little sparse. I’d like to keep it pared down.

I’ll compile my thoughts on the challenge as a whole in my next Money-Savin’ Mama column. Look for it Friday in The Forum and on this blog.

Did any of you join me in this challenge, or were you inspired to take it on next month? What last tips do you super-savers have for me?

Eating Less Expensively: Week 3

When last we left off in my family’s month-long adventure of trying to trim our food budget, I’d sent my husband to the grocery store with a list and a challenge: to spend less than $40.

He ended up visiting two stores, but got everything on the list and spent … drum roll … $30.05. This included an $8 bag of frozen, wild-caught cod fillets (the type of fish featured in the USDA’s thrifty food plan booklet), as well as some staple veggies (onion, celery), fresh fruit, milk and pasta.

When Craig got back from the store, he commented what a different experience it was, going in with a finite amount of cash. He had to try to come in under a certain number (which eliminated the impulse purchases he inevitably brings home) and find the best deal on everything. I was surprised and impressed that he purchased generic baking soda and O-shaped cereal. These are two items I typically buy name brand, for no good reason, I now realize.

This week, our meals included several dishes from that USDA booklet: cheese-stuffed baked potatoes, tuna macaroni salad and potato soup (though I did tweak the recipes for those last two, adding in more veggies). I also made Seven-Layer Hotdish, a favorite of Craig’s passed along by his Grandma Elaine. (UPDATED: Find this recipe in the comments below.) I even baked a pan of Rhubarb Cheesecake Bars on our meager budget.

We did stumble. I went through the McD’s drive-thru one afternoon, but kept the bill to $8 for lunch for the three of us. And a craving for ice cream on Friday night sent Craig back to the store, spending $6.49 on a half-gallon of cookie dough ice cream and a jar of hot fudge. This was a far less expensive option than getting blizzards from DQ, and still kept our out-of-pocket food costs for the week under $50.

Random lessons taken from this week:

  • I realized how fortunate I am in this challenge to have a cupboard full of staples after reading this blog post from moneysavingmom.com.  While the amount of money I’m pulling from the cupboard to prepare meals is minimal, the investment to obtain those items is significant for someone on a tight budget. We used up the last of our canola oil making fried chicken Saturday, and my flour is almost gone, so I’m going to need to stock up again.
  • It’s amazing how much food I had in my cupboards. How much do you have that just sits there, when it could be feeding your family? (BTW, as a farm girl, I LOVED this column by Tammy Swift about the need to have a well-stocked pantry.)
  • I’ve been trying to plan meals close together that use the same ingredients in different ways. A pound of bacon from the freezer (bought on sale for $3 awhile back) was divvied up between a pancake breakfast and the top of that Seven-Layer Hotdish. The two green peppers purchased for 88 cents each in Week 2 added crunch and flavor to the hotdish, the tuna macaroni salad, a makeshift jambalaya, as well as last week’s breakfast skillet and pizza meatloaf. It’s a good way to stretch more expensive ingredients.

Craig actually did most of our Week 4 shopping on Saturday, as we were out of milk and we wanted to make the trip worthwhile. He spent $30.10, which included more than 2 pounds of sirloin steak (at $3.98 a pound). Yes, we’re eating steak on a thrifty meal plan.

I’ll need to make one more grocery run later this week, to stock up on Cash Wise coupon deals and a few of those cooking staples we’ve depleted. Hopefully we’ll finish out the month frugal and full.

Eating Less Expensively: Week 2

My self-imposed challenge to spend less on groceries this month has perhaps turned into more of an “empty out the kitchen cupboards and freezer” exercise.  Which is actually great for two reasons: 1) It gives me a head start on my spring cleaning and 2) It does mean a lot less money going out this month (even if I’ll have to replenish the pantry some next month).

And I do mean a LOT less. The total amount I spent on groceries during week 2: $33.08.

I promise you I’m not starving my husband and children. Craig actually referred to me as a “gourmand” the other night, and said we’re eating a better variety of foods than ever.

Meals this week included lasagna roll-ups with side salads, mini cheeseburgers and carrot sticks, black beans and rice, a country brunch skillet (with breakfast sausage instead of bacon), and pizza meatloaf. That last recipe is from this USDA thrifty food plan booklet.

For these meals, I pulled a pound each of ground pork, beef and turkey from the freezer, as well as the sausage links, shredded cheese and hash brown potatoes. I had the lasagna noodles on hand, too. But even factoring in what I’ve cleared out of the pantry, I think I’m below the $103.20 allowance I’m trying to follow.

This boggles my mind a little, especially after I put pencil to paper. When broken down, that $103.20 translates to $14.75 per day to feed three people (plus Baby Owen). I divided that $14.75 out to $2.45 for breakfast, $4.90 for lunch and $7.40 for dinner. It’s obviously doable when we split a 50-cent box of mac and cheese, slice up a carrot and divvy up an orange for lunch. Not at all if we wanted to grill some steaks for supper. I guess that’s why there are no steak recipes in that USDA booklet …

Back to that grocery receipt (yes, singular “receipt,” I went to the store only once!): With my $33, I stocked up on milk, juice, eggs, fruit and veggies again, and bought several pounds of chicken breasts. A pleasant surprise to help aid my challenge was the arrival of the Cash Wise coupon mailer. Twice a year, the store sends out 8 weeks of coupons on a magnetic strip (SunMart does this once a year, too). The coupons feature really good deals, including those chicken breasts (a 2.5-pound bag for $3.88, or about $1.55 per pound) and potatoes (5 pounds for $1.48). Of course, it’s only a good deal if it’s an item you use anyway. I passed on the first week’s Kool-Aid coupon.

Other random thoughts from week 2:

  • Look at what you throw away. Look at what lingers in your fridge or cupboard. This is wasted money.
  • Avoid purchasing ingredients that are only good for one recipe. Half-full cartons of ricotta cheese usually go bad in my fridge. That’s why I was glad the lasagna roll-up recipe called for cottage cheese, my ricotta substitute from now on.
  • Trying to save money while feeding your family often comes down to balancing convenience and cost. Time and money are both commodities. Which do you have more of? While it’d be great to cook everything from scratch all the time, that ain’t happening in my house (especially because I’m not a very good cook). Where can you cut convenience to save cost?  One way I do this is buying frozen juice concentrate. Adding my own water and stirring saves me up to a dollar per half-gallon of juice.  This week I made a box of instant pudding instead of buying snack packs. It was super easy and less expensive, and Eve loved to help. On the other hand, while I could have saved even more money making the black beans and rice from scratch, I used a $2.50 package that was already seasoned and took only 25 minutes to cook. Find the middle ground that works for you.

Tonight, as we enter week 3, my husband volunteered to go to the store for me. I sent him with my list (I’ve got meals planned out through next Monday), the cash envelope and a challenge: to come in under $40. We’ll see how he does …

Eating less expensively: Week One

In Friday’s Money-Savin’ Mama column, I wrote about my self-imposed spending challenge: To see how little I could spend on groceries this month. I’m using a cash envelope system, giving myself a weekly maximum of $103.20, the federal thrifty meal plan amount for two adults and a 4-year-old. Here’s an update on how it’s going:

I’m one week in, and so far I’ve spent $56.50 on groceries. While that’s well below my self-imposed limit (huzzah!), it’s a deceptive number. The first week was  a transition, as we finished up food in the fridge, raided the pantry and were treated to some meals by our families, including the traditional ham-and-potatoes Easter Sunday lunch.

I actually went to the grocery store THREE times last week, which I wouldn’t recommend when you’re trying to save money. That’s three opportunities to be tempted by impulse purchases (though I did pass up the $2.50 Oreos and 4/$12 12-packs of sodas, both items I’d normally buy at those prices if I weren’t watching what I spent).

The first grocery outing was on Tuesday. I hadn’t meal planned yet, but was out of milk. So I stocked up on fruit and salad veggies, as well as milk and yogurt, and spent $19.09. I was pretty thrilled at the total, as I only needed to turn over one of the five twenties in my envelope.

I headed to another grocery store on Thursday, with some meals planned out. But I forgot my grocery list AND was working off an expired circular — two rookie mistakes. I bought what I could remember from my list, and a couple things from the current ad, spending $22.46.

So I went to ANOTHER store on Friday morning. I got the last things from my list, including ingredients to bring a raspberry rice salad for Easter dinner. Completely mindlessly, when I got to the register, I swiped my card. And it’s fascinating how mindless it was. While I could easily remember how much cash I had to turn over at my previous two grocery visits, I was completely clueless how much my bill was ($14.94 my receipt tells me).

I’m also noticing the mindless eating I tend to do throughout the day, as well as how quickly midday and late-night snacks can add up to real money.

Our evening meals last week included corn dogs with green beans and noodles, shrimp with couscous, Spaghetti alla Ceci (that’s chickpeas — thanks Rachael Ray!), and a frozen pizza Friday night.

This week’s plan is to cook some items from the USDA’s thrifty meal pamphlet, and hopefully only go to the grocery store once! I think it will be a truer test of my self-imposed limit.

Challenging myself to spend a little less for an entire month

Five years ago, my husband and I embarked on a month-long venture I dubbed “Spend No Money May.”

I’d been inspired by MSN financial columnist Liz Weston, and discussion boards she moderated. There, I read about others who had taken on the challenge to spend as little as possible for one month. For some, it was a statement against our consumption-based lifestyles. I saw it as a good way to stash some extra cash.

I made a list of exceptions (gift cards we’d gotten for Christmas but hadn’t used yet were fair game) and ideas, such as borrowing books and movies from the library. I planned out a month worth of meals on a calendar, and stocked up on groceries and toilet paper on April 30. We resisted eating out and skipped my usual mocha during afternoon coffee breaks for the entire month. We didn’t buy new clothes, music or go to the movies. We tried to drive less.

Of course we spent some money during the month, on perishable foods like milk and bread, on gasoline to get to work and back. But there were lots of places we were able to cut.

There were also hurdles. I hadn’t accounted for Mother’s Day gifts. The solution? We gave our moms rocks. They were crystals we’d dug up at a mine during a vacation to Arkansas the prior month.

A co-worker told me she thought we were crazy for taking on the month-long challenge. She wanted to scatter restaurant receipts around our house. She also told me at the end of the month, she’d spent less, too, because the two of us hadn’t tempted each other into spontaneous workday lunch outings.

The exercise forced us to look at all the areas of our budget, and realize which parts are fixed and which can be reduced. It opened our eyes to how easily we spent money, especially on going out. My credit card bill (which I pay off in full every month) was about half its average total that May.

We haven’t taken on another no-money month since, and recently, I got the itch to do it again. When I broached the idea with my husband, he wasn’t so enthused. After all, with two kids and me working part-time, every month is basically spend-no-money month.

So I decided to take on a personal challenge. While I’m pretty frugal at the grocery store, I don’t have a set limit for our family’s monthly food budget. So I’m going to see how little I can get by spending on groceries while preparing balanced meals for my family.

Once again, this will require meal planning, and digging a little deeper into the freezer and cupboards.

To be more mindful about grocery store spending, I’m going to use a cash envelope system. As a weekly maximum, I’m putting $103.20 in the envelope. That’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s thrifty plan weekly cost of food at home for a man, woman and 4-year-old. The goal will be to see how much less than that we can spend.

The web site www.cnpp.usda.org includes an online booklet with recipes and tips for following the thrifty meal plan.

If I counted 8-month-old Owen as a 1-year-old, I could add $21.30 to the weekly budget. The little man can really put away his rice cereal and pureed peas, but this is a money challenge.

Let “Eat Less Expensively April” begin.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two. She blogs at www.topmom.areavoices.com and can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com

Mom’s on a mission for baby bargains

My July 14 Parenting Perpsectives column …

Mom’s on a mission for baby bargains

My mom taught me to be frugal by clipping coupons and shopping at the Nearly Nu thrift store. I once watched her successfully bargain with a department store clerk to get the previous week’s sale price on a pair of shoes.

But living in a rural community, she didn’t have access to a parent’s best budget saver: garage sale season.

I’d barely announced my pregnancy when my mommy friends insisted we go rummage sale-ing. It was autumn, and my baby was due in March. They didn’t want me to miss my chance.

My tummy wasn’t bulging yet, but after a couple of outings, the bags of baby clothes were.

Since then, I’ve primarily outfitted my daughter in barely worn, secondhand clothes. And I’ve turned into an MGS – a Mommy Garage Saler.

Like any other MGS, I’m on a mission. I only hit sales that advertise baby items. I’ve got no time for your used vinyl records or building a doily collection.

I clearly remember the first baby item I bought at a rummage sale. It was an olive green and red romper from Baby Gap, size 0-3 months, perfect for the baby boy I thought I would have. My first mistake, I learned months later when my daughter Eve arrived.

My second mistake? It cost $3. Too much, I now realize.

Sure, it sounds like a steal. Brand-new it was probably $25 or more.

But rummaging has taught me there’s no need to pay retail, half-price or even the price written on a piece of masking tape.

With experience, I’ve established price limits for baby clothes: $1 for a sleeper, 50 cents for a shirt, $2 for an outfit or a dress.

I’ll often haggle to pay what I want. It’s easier to do when you buy several items.

My stringent pricing has spoiled me for department stores. I regularly get sticker shock as I peruse the clearance racks.

A halter dress marked down 40 percent at Gymboree still costs about $19. I wouldn’t pay much more than that for a dress for myself, and this one contains about a tenth of the fabric.

As a result, I’ve passed up a lot of adorable outfits – in stores and garages – but it has saved our family budget. And I have bags of clothes, all the way up to size 5T, waiting to be worn.

I know my bargain fashions won’t please Eve forever. I loathed going to the Nearly Nu with my mom when I hit my early teens. I’m sure at some point Eve will refuse to wear clothes that have somebody else’s initials written on the tags.

Hopefully, though, I can pass along the frugal ways I learned from my mom, even if I don’t see myself haggling at West Acres any time soon.

Sherri Richards is mother of a 16-month-old daughter and employee of The Forum. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com. She’s also “Top Mom” at http://moms.inforum.com