Blueberry Picking

About a year ago, I found out that there is a U-Pick Blueberry Farm in our area–Leavelle Farms! I was so excited…until I realized that it was already closed for the year. 😦 Bummer. I was determined not to miss it again, though, so I “liked” their Facebook page to make sure I was notified when they reopened.

They opened in mid-June, and I kept trying to schedule a trip out there…and kept having conflicts come up. I’m actually glad that I didn’t get to go sooner, because Michael was able to go with us when we finally got to go! Woohoo! I love a family adventure!

We headed out mid-morning on Saturday. We arrived to find the weather pleasant and the sky overcast–perfect berry-picking weather!  The farm was perfect–plenty of bushes with lots of berries, easily accessible bathroom (essential for a pleasant outing with kids), friendly owners, and only $6 per GALLON of berries you pick! We picked and picked…even through a rain shower. We all got a bit wet, but we also left with a full gallon of berries to enjoy.

It was a wonderful day, but I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves…

(I apologize for the focus issues in some my pictures. I’m still working on getting used to my camera, and I get in too much of a hurry sometimes.)

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Note that the focus here is on the bush, not the adorable face…should’ve switched to manual mode… 😉

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Note that NOTHING is in focus here…I like to call this one “auto-UNfocus”

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Marked improvement. I love this shot.

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All of my guys working together…smile.

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And finally, my little drowned rat. 🙂 Sweet boys, sweet berries, and sweet memories. You can’t beat that.

We had so much fun that I gathered up my mom, my niece and nephew, and our awesome neighbor friends and went back on Monday! We gathered another 4 gallons between the three families! There are now 12 quarts of berries in the freezer to get us ALL through the winter with muffins, cobblers, and other blueberry dishes. 🙂

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I’ll have to share my recipe for blueberry cobbler that came out of this adventure soon, too. 🙂 Yum!!

 

 

Muffins, Muffins, Muffins everywhere!

Sorry it has been so long since I’ve posted…I’ve been baking muffins.

Ok…maybe I’ve done a few other things too. I have baked a LOT of muffins though.

We’ve tried lots of new recipes over the last few weeks with lots of new ingredients. I’ve been trying to master the art of making a whole-wheat muffin taste more like a muffin and than like…well…warm spicy bread. Although my dad and Paula Deen say that you can never have too much sugar, I’ve been trying to find a balance that will allow the natural flavors to shine without feeling like I’m feeding my family a candy bar.

Since I’m trying to move toward more whole-food ingredients, there has been a definite learning curve. Some of the new ingredients I’ve been playing with in my muffin recipes include whole wheat flour, ground flax seed, raw honey, less refined sugars, and veggies!

I’ve had success with recipes like carrot-applesauce muffin, zucchini muffins, pumpkin muffins, and our old reliable banana muffins. I’ve also had failures with those same recipes–except the banana muffins…those are resilient enough that I haven’t managed to mess them up yet. 🙂

Some things that I’ve learned:

  • Adding sour cream or yogurt to the batter will help moisten whole wheat muffins and make the sweetener sweeten better
  •  Although they say you can substitute ground flax for an egg (1T flax + 3T water) or some of the fat (3T flax for 1T butter/oil) in a recipe, I’m almost always too chicken to try it. I usually just adding a bit for an extra boost of nutrients in the overall recipe.
  • Whether or not it is possible to have too much sugar, it is definitely possible to have too little.
  • If you put too little sugar in a recipe, you will clean up 6-10X the crumbs from your floor/furniture because the kids would rather crumble the muffins than gobble them down like properly sweetened ones.
  • Baking my own muffins from scratch is much less expensive than buying pre-made muffins, and I get to control what goes into them!
  • Muffin recipes are amazingly flexible. As long as you add enough sweetener (see above), you can add or substitute ingredients pretty much at will. Batter seem too thick? Add a splash of buttermilk! Don’t have buttermilk? Use sweet milk or almond milk or yogurt or sour cream or applesauce or…you get the idea!
  • I hate muffin papers. I don’t use them. I bake muffins in an oiled muffin tin and they come out just fine. I don’t lose any muffin yumminess to that sticky paper, and I have one less thing to pick up when the boys forget that our maid doesn’t exist.
  • I love silicone baking liners, but I don’t use them for baking. I use them for separating items in Zander’s lunch…sometimes even muffins! 🙂
  • Muffins freeze really well. I just cool them completely and pop 6 into each quart sized freezer bag. They warm up in 30 seconds in the microwave for a fast breakfast, or I can just pop it still frozen into the lunchbox. By the time they get to lunch, the muffin is ready to eat.

Now for a recipe!

Whole Wheat Banana Muffins (adapted from Heavenly Homemakers)

  • 1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour (I usually bump closer to 2 cups) 
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup mashed over-ripe bananas (about 2-3 bananas–I always use 3 and have a bit more than 1 cup in the end)
  • 1/3 cup honey (if using sugar, I would probably double this amount)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • up to 1/2 cup pecan pieces (optional)

Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  In a separate bowl, mash bananas, or puree them in a blender. 

I keep ripe bananas in my freezer all the time for this very purpose. You just let them sit for a few minutes on the counter (or zap them for 30 seconds in the microwave if you’re running behind like I usually am) to soften them enough to squeeze them out of the skins (gross but oddly satisfying). The great thing is that they’re already pretty mushed when they come out, so there’s not much mashing or pureeing required–just a few swipes with a fork to finish it off.

Mix mashed bananas, honey, melted butter and eggs into flour mixture.

Fold in pecan pieces if using–I actually spoon half of the batter into cups first, then fold them in for the last half of the batch because Michael only likes them WITH nuts and Zan only likes them WITHOUT nuts. Naturally. 🙂

Spoon batter into buttered or paper lined muffin tins. Bake in a 400° oven for 20 minutes.

I get anywhere from 12-15 muffins from this recipe, depending on how I hold my mouth when I’m mixing it up.

When they come out, I let them cool for a minute or two in the pan before removing to a wire rack. Since these are quite moist, they need to be completely cool before putting them into a container or you can put a paper towel in there with them to absorb the extra moisture if you’re too rushed to wait the whole time.

Enjoy!

I’ll post my pumpkin muffin recipe tomorrow, after I test it one more time tonight. It’s an adaptation of this recipe, but I have to make sure I can recreate it before I unleash it on anyone else. Ha!

Feeling Crafty

I guess that blogging about my home improvement projects lit a fire under me, because I woke up yesterday with a resolve to finish the job that I started. 🙂

I put the last coat of paint on the back bathroom walls in the morning. When I finished, I realized that I has about 1/4 cup of paint left from that  gallon. I knew that I wanted to use some of that paint to make custom artwork for my front bathroom…and if I let it dry out I knew that I would put off the project because I didn’t want to open a whole new gallon.

I had a deadline! I work very well under the pressure of a deadline. Some call it procrastination…I call it creative…procrastination. Ehh. It works for me.

So I loaded up my mom, my boys, my niece and nephew, and headed out to Michael’s to get a few supplies. We hit the jackpot and found a 5-pack of 16″x20″ canvases for $9.95! I only needed two, but Zander has fallen in love with art in the last couple of years. He had been begging for me to get him canvases…so two birds and such. I also picked up a larger canvas for half off (of the normal jacked-up prices…) for the back bathroom. One tube of paint for an accent color (regularly $3.99, but it was also 40% off), and we were ready to go!

I had seen a pin on Pinterest that gave me the idea for this project. I decided to use the colors from the two areas that I was painting (front bathroom–green; hall, foyer, and back bathroom–blue) plus the accent color that I picked up at the store to create artwork that would coordinate perfectly with my rooms without running all over town trying to find the right picture at the right price.

Here’s what I did:

Tape off your design

First, tape off your design.

Then do it again...

Then do it again…

Then pretend it's a paint by number (without the numbers)...

Then pretend it’s a paint by number (without the numbers)…

Remove the tape

Remove the tape and enjoy!

Custom art work for super cheap!

Custom art work for super cheap!

Again, I said custom art work for super cheap!

Again, I said custom art work for super cheap! See how the blue in the painting coordinates with the blue peeking through the doorway? Brilliant!

The final result

The final result…note the bathing child, which allowed me the few minutes necessary for taking these pictures without the creation of messes of horrific proportions.

A different take on laundry detergent

This post marks the end of weeks-long radio silence on this blog. 🙂 It’s good to be back!

The last few weeks of work and the first couple of weeks of stay-at-home mom’ing were so trying that I couldn’t even make it to the computer. I am so glad to be able to take a couple of minutes this morning and get back on track!

I promised my friend/neighbor and my mom a recipe for laundry detergent that didn’t require the 5 gallon bucket, grating soap, or cooking the mixture. Since they both have septic tanks and therefore can not use bleach anyway, I knew just the recipe to give them. The recipe uses Dawn dishwashing liquid as the “soap,” so if you ever use chlorine bleach in your laundry this is NOT the recipe for you.

Note: If you don’t already know, most standard dishwashing liquids (including Dawn) contain ammonia. NEVER MIX BLEACH AND AMMONIA! The combination of these two chemicals creates a toxic gas that causes lung damage and even death.

Ok. Warning is out of the way. Here’s the recipe!

As so many of my homemade ideas have, this one came from One Good Thing by Jillee.

Ingredients:
3 Tablespoons Borax
3 Tablespoons Washing Powder
2 Tablespoons Dawn dishwashing liquid

Put ingredients into a one gallon jug. Pour in 4 cups very hot/boiling water and swirl until dissolved. Let mixture cool and then fill up with cold water. Voila!

Use about 1/2 cup per load. This detergent is very thin, but Jillee says that it still works just as well. Also, if you want an additional scent boost, you can mix in a couple of tablespoons of your favorite scent crystals (I use Purex) to the mixture before adding the water.

Try it and let me know what you think!

Extreme Couponing?

It’s Sunday morning, and you know what that means…COUPONS! It’s a time to grab your paper and pray that the coupons that you saw forecasted online are actually IN your area’s paper (since many offers are regional, and I often don’t live in the right region apparently).

Once you have seen what coupons you have, it’s time to hit the match-up blogs and sales papers to plan your shopping adventure. Plan, organize, clip as necessary, print online coupons, strategize, anticipate stock shortages and create alternate plans…

That’s what I did every Sunday for the several months that I now reflect on as my “extreme couponing” experimentation period. I was good at it too. I would often come home with 75% savings or better. My husband was in awe of my savings skills. My children detested shopping with me.

I had the binder. I knew the rules. I was rocking the shopping scene.

I was also making about 15 trips to different stores every week. I would often visit multiple stores in the same chain to get all of the deals on my list because of stock shortages. I was obsessed with getting good deals. My mind and day were consumed with planning and executing detailed shopping plans to avoid missing out on unbeatable deals.

Was it worth it?

I had a very well-stocked pantry. I had a stash of toiletries that I had purchased for little or nothing.

So why have I not rushed out today to get my 4-6 copies of this week’s coupons? Why do I have absolutely no idea what is on sale this week at the local drugstores? Why is my printer silent?

Here is my take on the pros and cons of extreme couponing.

Positives of Couponing:

  • I saved money on things that we use a lot like mayo, salad dressing, sauces for cooking, etc.
  • I saved money on toiletries. I haven’t bought razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, or deodorant in over a year.
  • I increased my awareness of price cycles, sales gimmicks, marketing strategies, and real prices.

Negatives of Couponing:

  • I spent money on things I didn’t really want/need or never used.
  • I spent time and money on couponing outside of the products I bought (buying papers, ink, etc.).
  • I made extra trips to the store and had the extra stress of trying to shop with my kids without messing up my deals.
  • I had the pressure of making sure that I didn’t violate any ethics issues in the execution on my awesome deals.
  • Couponing consumed my mind.
  • Buying things that I didn’t really need or use led to additional clutter in my home.
  • The time and energy that I spent couponing and shopping reduced the time and energy that I could spend on my home and family (cooking, cleaning, and parenting took a backseat to deals).

For me, the cons outweighed the pros. I returned to shopping without a binder of coupons. I stopped stalking savings blogs for freebies and money-makers. I didn’t leave everything behind though.

Here are the things that I took away from my venture into the “extreme couponing” world:

  • Extreme ANYTHING is usually not a good idea. Moderation is key. Shop smart, but don’t obsess on deals, prices, sales, and stockpiles.
  • Pay attention to sale cycles and base prices for the products that you buy often. Shop ahead when you find a great price. Tomatoes for $0.52/can? Stock up! Just make sure that you only buy what you will USE. It’s not a good deal if you don’t use it up before it goes bad.
  • Don’t waste your time obsessing on the prices of things that you buy infrequently. Does it really matter if you save $0.50 on something that you only buy every 6 months?
  • If you don’t buy it regularly already, don’t buy it…no matter how good the deal! Spending $3 on a $15 product is not a good deal if it then sits in your closet because you didn’t need it to begin with (not that I have an automatic air freshener sitting in the bottom of my pantry or anything…).
  • Check deal-matching blogs if you want, but don’t obsess over “missed” deals.
  •  There’s a price for every coupon you use. Just use what you can easily get and forget the coupons that were in the paper that you didn’t get last week. The paper probably cost more than you would have saved!
  • Make sure you’re not sacrificing a clean and orderly home for a stockpile of “deals.”
  • Put your family and their happiness before shopping trips. Necessities are different—sometimes we HAVE to go to the store amidst protests, but if you’re just trying to “score” the great deal on deodorant…listen to the cries of your children.
  • If you’re too wiped out after shopping to cook, clean, love, or care for your family, you have things backward. Step back, reassess, and reorganize those priorities.

Cutting the Budget “Fat”

I have been trying to “cut the fat” from our budget today. It’s not easy, but here’s what I have found:

  • I called our telephone company, and managed to cut out a whopping $5/month from our home phone/internet bill. Of course, I could just cut off the home phone entirely, but I’m not sure we’re there yet. Soon maybe, just not yet.
  • I called our auto insurance company, and got a few good ideas about how to cut our premiums, but we’re really using most of the available discounts already. I’m going to get my info together and call about adding our homeowners to the policy to see if we could save on both, but that’ll be a task for another day. No direct savings here.
  • I reviewed our power bill and saw that we have reduced our average consumption from April to May even though it was hotter in May, so that’s good. In fact, we’ve dropped our budget billing amount by $17/month!
  • I’m seriously considering cutting off our satellite TV. It’s $90/month, and we watch a handful of TV hours a week. A little more soul-searching will be required before this decision is reached. I did cut off the extra receiver that we don’t use but have paid for about 6 years longer than we needed it. $5/month saved there.
  • I cut off the DVD service for Netflix, saving $7.99/month.
  • I cut off the Equifax reporting for Michael that I have let dangle for WAYYY too long. There’s another $14.99/month.
  • I cut off my subscription to WildTangent games since I really don’t use it much and don’t need to be playing computer games in my free time anyway. 🙂 $6.99/month saved.

Grand total: $39.97 of cut-off stuff + $17 power savings + lots of things to think about = not a bad day’s work

Baby steps…

Here are some other areas that I’m working on:

  • Using meal planning to cut grocery spending in HALF from May to June
  • Driving less, watching gas prices closer, etc. to cut gas consumption by $60 (getting it within our new budgeted level)
  • Eating at home more…MUCH more…to reduce our eating-out budget by 66%

Do you have other ideas on how to cut the budget?

We are Papertowel-less

A little over a month ago (April 28, to be exact), I posted this comment on my Facebook page:

“Ok…I have issued and accepted a challenge to myself. I am trying to eliminate the use of paper towels in our house. My goal right now is to make the 4 rolls that I have left last at least 2 months. I will not buy any more paper towels until July 1. I have plenty of kitchen towels and rags, cleaning rags, and even some homemade “clorox” wipes. I am about to wash the cloth napkins that have been sitting in my linen closet for 6 years waiting to be used. Game on! :-)”

Since that day, we have used less than 1 roll of papertowels. Yep…the other three are still sitting there collecting dust.

Here’s what we are using:

  • cloth napkins for meals
  • flannel squares for quick wipe-ups (faces, noses, hands, etc)
  • kitchen towels for dishes, cooking, and such (I keep a clean one out at all times)
  • kitchen rags for washing dishes
  • retired rags for floors, yuck messes, staining messes, and things that need to just be thrown away (I wash a lot of them, but some things just need to go in the trash!)

We already had a lot of these things hiding in our linen closet. It was just a matter of rummaging through to see how we could use what we already had. I started out using the “clorox” wipes, but have wound up using them only rarely. I usually just grab a rag and a spray of whatever cleaner is closest…or a microfiber cloth. Those things are awesome! I use microfiber for messes that would have usually required a good bit of cleaner or scrubbing, like my flat cooktop after using it to knead my bread dough. 🙂

I have realized that I’m not a huge fan of WHITE napkins, for obvious reasons if you have kids and serve spaghetti. I spent $4 on a couple of yards of printed darker fabric that I’m slowly hemming into napkins. I also discovered that old flannel baby blankets can be cut into the most perfect little rags for toddler-related clean ups. I hated having to run to the closet for washcloths every time I needed to degunkify that percious little face, but I didn’t want to spend  money to BUY even more stuff. One of the points of this whole project is to save some money while lessening our impact on the enviroment. I can’t do that if I’m buying more and more. So, I took a pair of pinking shears to a white blanket that was stained beyond hope anyway, and sent them through the wash with my fingers crossed. Unlike my flour-sack towels, these didn’t ravel AT ALL!! I forsee the demise of a few more blankets in my house’s future…

The only thing that we use papertowels for is really grease. The few times that I have cooked sausage, I drained it on papertowels. I may try it on my flannel rags and rinse them with a little dawn, but for now, I’m ok with this occasional usage. Once we’re out of those 4 rolls though, there’s no looking back! (of course, at this rate, that will be some time in 2013)

The best part of the whole process was the moment that my husband told a friend that he’s really been enjoying using the cloth napkins! He said that he wasn’t too sure about it at first, but he’s really gotten used to it. *smile* I love affirmation. I hope that he’ll look back on a lot of the changes that I’m trying in our house with the same happiness.