Things I found in the pantry

I really dislike cleaning cupboards.  So when I cleaned out the pantry a few days ago, I wasn’t too happy.  The kids and Chris always offer to help (a token offer since I expect it but always turn them down). Then they split so they don’t have to listen to me explode with “Who poured brown sugar into the rice jar?”  or “Why didn’t we know we had two jars of red pesto when I went shopping yesterday??” 

According to Katie, these are questions that she has learned she is not actually expected to answer.  She was quite delighted when she learned the meaning of “rhetorical”!  She’s also learned that she is way better off if she doesn’t answer them, despite the fact they seem to ricochet around the room and settle randomly on someone.  The urge to answer in kind is overwhelming… we are still reeling from a 2008 response involving gender stereotyping and the implication that the maternal head of the house is the maid.

I’m always amazed at what escapes our notice in the pantry and cupboards.  Here’s what I found a few days ago. 

1.  10 packets of Stash Licorice Spice Herbal Tea (yuck, who drinks licorice?  O.K. Sake…but I’m convinced that’s an acquired taste, involving a generation of exposure.)

2. A spice mix for Chana Masala, given to Chris about 4 years ago by Stephanie when he enthused about hers.  I hope to make this tomorrow.

3. About 4 cups of Garam Masala.  I had a cup already, Stephanie kindly gave us a bunch and then Chris bought more because we couldn’t find it in the pantry.  We’ve used about 4 tablespoons in the last year.

4. Three  partial bags of bulk popcorn.  Much to my satisfaction it is now all in one mason jar with a white screw lid.

5. An old onion.  Enough said.

6. About 15 bags of unidentified grains.  Some I’ve got a good idea as to the contents…others I will grind up and improvise on breadmaking day.

7. Five boxes or arborio rice.  See note about Garam Masala.

8. Two bottles of lemon juice that somehow didn’t make it into my lemon juice bottle lineup. I have been buying it for the last year while I had these.

9. Cream of tartar.  Bought the last time we made homemade Play Doh.

10. Two  half filled bottles of Sunflower oil.  Now in one bottle.  Second bottle in recycling bin.

11.  A large can of Heinz Tomatoe juice and a small can of no name peas.  At least 7 years old. Given to us as part of a “food basket” during our 2003 wildfire evacuation…I think the third evacuation that August.  Anybody have a recipe for a Ceasar?

12. Part package of taco seasoning that slid down the side of the pantry shelf and wedged itself.  Rock solid.

13. Peanut skins all over the place and more than a handful of pistachio shells.

14. Something I originally thought was a petrified mouse but when I finished gagging long enough to look at, realized it was an old sock of Stephen’s.

15. The most surprising…1/2″ of Captain Morgan’s dark rum…that’s the last thing I would’ve thought I’d lose in the pantry!

16. Three wine jackets…some really funny ones that I meant to give away but like so much I keep hiding them.  One is a metal snowman with a hat that goes over the cork.  He is carrying skis which I’m pretty sure are skate skis, because no snowman who cares about “cool” would be caught with anything but.

17. Dried camping food.  After a nasty experience with dried camping food in 1991, we refuse to eat it.  But frugal me can’t throw it away.

18. Half jar of red peppercorns that I’ve been putting in the pepper mill for three years now in an attempt to use it up after an unsuccessful peppercorn encrusted goatcheese and pineapple log.  (Blech).  I know, it almost sounds good.

19. Eight partially filled food colouring containers from Easter.  Two of each colour.  Probably because we couldn’t find the original package last year.  Too messy to contemplate pouring into one set.

20. A letter from my Dad to me after my mom died in 2000.  Finding that was worth the hour it took me to clean the pantry.   I miss her.

Tomorrow I clean out the drawer under the oven…here’s hoping it will also be worth my while!

Housework in the Nutshell

I’m finding myself thinking a lot about the cleanliness of my house these days.  Recently, one of Katie’s friends turned to her when leaving the Nutshell and said, “how are you guys going to keep a big place clean?”

I’ve begun to wonder if it’s going to be possible to keep a 2000 square foot earthship clean and tidy when 600 square feet seems to evade us.  Yes, I do recognize that we are consumed by construction, homeschooling, and for me, paid work outside of all of that.  When the earthship is complete, am I really going to say, “o.k., now with all my spare time, I’m going to wash the floors?”

I’m not actually a really messy person.  When I met Chris I was amazed at how tidy he was.  So what’s the deal?  Kids, construction, small space (clutter), half finished living quarters are all conspiring against us.

I do clean the Nutshell from top to bottom on occasion.  Feels pretty good when it is clean.  I wave my hands and point my fingers at the other people living with me and command them to “keep it that way!” 

I think a big part of it is loving where you live.  I’m grateful for the Nutshell.  It’s allowed us to live rent-free and mortgage-free while we build.  But…I don’t love it.  I don’t lovingly run my dishcloth over the counters or in the sink.  When I sit down to relax and have a coffee, it’s simply to relax and have a coffee, not to settle into any sort of homey atmosphere.

I actually haven’t LOVED anywhere I’ve lived. So many of the places Chris and I have lived since we met in 1989 have been temporary places that we chose because they were the best we could find at the time. I’ve never had input into what my home would look or feel like.

When I was mixing mud-plaster today I was looking around the inside of the earthship and dreaming of what it could look like.  I was particularly thinking of how our partially circular steps from the front door would look coming down to the planters.  With the sun streaming through the front windows, I imagined sitting on a bench near my banana tree (!) and Chris’ fish pond and reading a good book in the sun.  I’ve even been planning out my pantry-I’ve fought my food storage at every other place I’ve lived.

Since closing it in, I’ve been able to see how the earthship might look finished.  It’s quite a neat feeling to feel like we are finally on the downhill side of all the work.  I’m not sure when we will move in; I think because we were gunning for Christmas I might have subconsciously thought that the next time I cleaned the Nutshell it might be with a torch! 

So I’ve bitten the bullet in the Nutshell. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Yesterday I cleaned out the pantry and most of the cupboards.  I attacked the fridge and freezer and gradually over the next few days I will finish the kitchen while I continue to work, plaster and volunteer.  Next  I will clean the bathroom and the remaining rooms will be easier still. 

Our move in date is vaguely set for “spring”.  I guess I’ll have to resign myself to cleaning the Nutshell a few more times before then…  :(

Cutting the grocery bill

When we lived in San Francisco in 1997/98 I read a book by Jonni McCoy, called Miserly Moms.  This book is all about how a family can live on one income by cutting expenses. In Ms. McCoy’s book, the emphasis is on reducing the weekly grocery bill.

I thought it was interesting to read at the time, but with a combined income well into six digits, I wasn’t too concerned about reducing grocery costs at the time.

Fast forward to 2002 when times were pretty tough for us and I was looking for any way possible to save money and stay afloat without dipping into our retirement savings.  With three toddlers I found the frugal recipes the most helpful, but did not have the energy to follow her shopping strategy as I was often shopping with three toddlers in tow. (She stipulates that for her strategy to work, the kids must not accompany the shopper!)

Essentially by following the loss leaders (the reduced price items designed to suck you into the store), shopping at three or four stores, and planning your meals around those loss leaders, Ms. McCoy maintains a reduction of 40-50 percent in one’s grocery bill can be achieved.

I saw a recent update to the book (2009) so I borrowed it from the library.  I figured every penny we saved is that much more to put toward the house.  So I spent a few days reading it again.

I found it intriguing and decided to give her theory a try.  Here’s what I found:

Loss leaders are often on items I don’t buy.  For example, packages of processed meats, like stuffed chicken breast.   I generally avoid them, not just because of the cost, but because of what’s added to them.  So stuffed chicken breasts on sale for a really great price are usually still more expensive than plain chicken breasts and the ingredients to stuff into it AND there are all sorts of additives, never mind how they are raised.

There aren’t enough loss leader items at the three stores I chose to shop at in Kamloops–The Superstore, Safeway and Save On– to actually plan a menu around.

Ms. McCoy also advocates keeping price lists so one is able to spot really great prices and buy in bulk. I already do this so I was pleased I was ahead on that score.

She’s not a big fan of coupons, although she admits combined with loss leaders, they can be really important in reducing costs. However, in Canada, we do not have the coupon system that exists in the states.  Most coupons in Canada are on items that are newly introduced by brand name companies…and I don’t often buy brand names.

Last week I went into Kamloops on errands and prepared my shopping list ahead of time, with the loss leaders duly noted on my list.  I found Royal Gala apples for $0.80 per pound, parsley for $0.49 a bunch, tomatoes (our crop was pitiful this year) for $1.00 per pound and hearty whole wheat bread for $1.25 per loaf.  These items (along with a few others), I purchased at Safeway.

At the Superstore I purchased a few of the loss leaders they had listed in their online flyer but the only thing at Save On that I was remotely interested in was pickles and it didn’t seem worth it to drive to the store for one item.  I ended up buying the rest of my shopping items from the Superstore.

My feeling was that I did well at Safeway. I went in with just the loss leader items on my list and felt for the $60 I spent I came out with more than I thought usual.  I spent another $299 (and received a $25 gift card) at Superstore, but my cart felt the same as usual…this probably isn’t surprising since I had to buy all my remaining items there.

Complicating matters is that we buy our meat locally at about the same price as we’d get it in the store. According to Ms. McCoy, one should never buy meat (or any item) at full price.  We’ll continue to buy meat locally so I’m not sure I will ever be able to reduce our grocery cost by the range she claims. 

Buying whole wheat bread on sale for $1.25 a loaf is pretty good…for store bought bread.  But when I make home made bread I know I’m ahead of that.  I bought all my yeast vacuum packed several years for about $1.89 a kilo. (O.K. that was a great deal, but I thought I was buying a 2 kg package and I ended up with 48 kilos..I’m still working down the yeast, despite having given some away).  I look for pretty sharp prices on flour and buy specialty grains in bulk.  Even if my bread is on par in terms of price with store bought bread, I believe mine is simply better.  The wrinkle in this, is that now that I’m busier with work, and continuing with working on the house, it’s harder and harder to find the time to bake…

Most weeks when I buy more than $250 at the Superstore, they “give” me a gift card for $25.  This is an automatic 10% savings, which is nothing to sneeze at, in my opinion. At Christmas, the store often gives a $50 gift card if you spend $400, making the return even better.  Aiming for fewer, big shops, makes shopping the loss leaders more difficult.  Ms. McCoy’s stretegy hinges on shopping weekly, to get a variety of loss leader savings.

I find that the more whole foods we stick too, the less her strategy comes into play.  Granted, starting with whole foods reduces your grocery bill enormously anyway.  The answer, of course, is to grow and raise your own food (which is always less expensive) and not depend on grocery store shopping.  The busier a person is, however, the less time to devote to this.   Everything’s a trade-off. 

I’ve often wondered how our grocery bill compares to other people’s monthly expenditure.  I usually stock up every two weeks and can spend $300 each time.  I do spend slightly less in summer.  Our food bill has ranged from $450-$650 each month. 

I’m going to continue to be aware of the loss leaders and examine my grocery shopping habits for the next several weeks to see if anything changes.

How much do you spend a month on food?