Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Musical Blogs

I used to have a blog called Slowish Food that I put on hiatus when I got pregnant and couldn't stand to think or write about food that wasn't unhealthy, heavy in carbs, and spoonable.

But with Sylvia getting older (almost six months, she is!) and me starting to get a teensy bit of my groove back, I'm realizing that I like writing about food better than I like writing about saving money. So I'm putting Amateur Tightwad on hold and heading back to Slowish Food to see what I can whip up in the kitchen.

I hope you'll join me!


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Opinion: Should Kids be Shielded from Frugality?

Something came up at work recently that I've been mulling over since. I work in publishing, and recently my group did some research on frugal/back to the land resources -- blogs, books, magazines, etc. My colleague who was heading up the research told me some of the things she'd found, and then said that some of the frugal blogs went "way overboard," and that the people writing the blogs needed to be careful what they wrote about and the way it could reflect on their kids. The example she gave was a mom who ended one post relaying how her son headed out the door in his yard sale pants; my co-worker's concern was that kids are cruel, and that Yard Sale Pants Boy's classmates could tease him mercilessly about his second-hand clothes.

This came, I'll admit, the same day I'd called Phil on my way taking the kids to daycare to tell him to check out an oak student's desk our neighbors were throwing out, and maybe trash-pick it for one of the kids. (He did. It's in the garage waiting for me to make some light repairs.)

I didn't grow up on yard sale clothes, but that was more because my mom simply didn't have the time to frequent yard sales. I didn't have a problem with yard-sale clothes. In college, I clothed myself half in Paul Harris and Casual Corner, and half in vintage treasures we found at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. This was what we did; back in the late 80s there was a certain cache to pairing jeans (likely, acid-wash) with vintage Ward Cleaver sweaters and garish rhinestone brooches.

My kids are young, but they've already accompanied me to yard sales. They know that we've received hand-me-downs from friends, and they know that we've passed along things we can no longer use to other friends. They know that a good portion of their school clothes come from garage sales frequented by my mom, who now is retired and enjoys the thrill of the hunt.

I can't help but wonder why it's okay to have costly vintage and antique furniture, which is at its root second-hand, but not okay to have cheaper second-hand items. I think of a vintage clothing store I visited in New York City that included a roped-off section of vintage Levi's, some going for $500 and more. What makes those jeans desirable, but 50-cent yard-sale jeans that a six-year-old outgrew embarrassing?

I feel strongly that one of the greatest gifts Phil's and my parents gave us was showing by example how to live well within and below our means. Based on what we saw every day for 18 years growing up, this is normal to us. Consequently, we're not desperately in hock supporting a lifestyle that's out of sync with our income.

So what do you think? Did you grow up believing second-hand and frugal were problems? Do you shield frugal purchases from older kids or try to teach them confidence and making money choices? Where is the line drawn between responsible and embarrassing? Does this line even exist outside of the perception of others?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Quick Tip: Green Bathtub Scrub

I'm currently addicted to Recipezaar, where you can find a recipe for anything. Zucchini bread? 279 recipes. Mushroom risotto? 65 recipes. Suckling pig? 3 recipes.

You can also find recipes for things like body scrub, homemade deodorant (no, I haven't tried, but Amy at Angry Chicken did), and green cleaners.

Faced with a tub desperately in need of cleaning, I found and just tried this recipe, and it works great:

1 cup baking soda
1/2 cup pure castille soap
A couple drops essential oil, if you want

Just add the soap to the baking soda and stir around until it's all mixed in; it'll look like frosting. I used castille soap from Trader Joe's, which is peppermint scented and about $2.99 for a 16-oz. bottle, so I didn't bother spiffing it up any more with fragrance. Then I slathered the mix in my grimy tub, went out and did some gardening for 40 minutes or so, came back and scrubbed it all out, and took a shower in my clean tub, likely befouling it again.

This likely isn't cheaper than the Soft Scrub I generally use and bought in bulk at Costco, but I'm more comfortable with it ending up in my drinking water, and it smells a lot better.

Happy scrubbing!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Like a Fish on the Hook

Something I might include the next time I'm asked to meme something about myself: Generally, I hate staged kid photos. Generally, I must emphasize. A local studio we took Max to several times, in fact, specializes in those ultra-stylized kids-as-adults photos I have despised for years. The toddler in a suit, complete with ruffled tie and open briefcase. The seven-year-old in a leather jacket sitting on a fake motorcycle. The girls-as-fairies setups. Or, my personal favorite, the Tom Sawyer wannabe sitting at the mirrored fishing pond. Any time we took Max to the studio, we would iterate over and over, "We just want him to look like a nice boy" or the photographer would be hauling out old newsroom typewriters or live monkeys to pose him with.

So when I saw a sign at Tommy and Sylvia's daycare announcing that a photographer would be there would be doing old-timey sepia photos, I rolled my eyes and forgot the date. I didn't take any special pains to get the kids photo-ready that day, since I didn't even know what day the photographer was coming. But a bit after the photos were taken, someone was there at the center with piles of proofs, and because I always like looking at pictures of my kids, I agreed to take a peek.

And despite the salesperson's what-do-I-have-to-do-to-get-you-in-this-full-package pitch, which usually sends me running the other way, I was hooked. I don't know how it happened, but suddenly I became one of those moms who couldn't write a triple-digit check fast enough to obtain staged photos of her kids in unnatural settings. Phil even got in on the act, meeting me after work at the daycare so we could pick out the perfect poses. Then we agreed to buy the full set of electronic photos so that we could do things like post them on blogs.

Photos of, say, Tommy just weeks before admitting he had a problem at Gamblers Anonymous:

Or Sylvia in a little number we like to call "Random Feet":

Or Tommy sleeping off a drunk while Sylvia suspiciously eyes the creepy man offstage:

Or Tommy reprising his role as George M. Cohan in an off-Broadway production of Yankee Doodle Dandy:

Or, no joke, Tommy playing hooky at the ole fishin' hole:

While I keep trying to give myself a mental tongue-lashing for this somewhat expensive and unbudgeted purchase, my heart's not really in it. Every time I look at this picture in my office I smile, so I suppose not all impulse purchases are without merit:

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Two Blogs, Seven Kids

I just have two fun blogs to share today. And blog reading is free, right?

It was just about a year ago that Phil and I were completely taken aback by the realization that we were very unexpectedly expecting a third. And I remember the panic and the "how can we swing it?" moments that accompanied this rather regular and almost mundane pregnancy.

A couple of my co-workers have been far more surprised by their maternal news, and both have blogs to document the fun.

Christine, a co-worker, was surprised about three years ago to find that her normal pregnancy was actually going to be triplets. She now has three adorable, sassy two-year-old girls and documents the fun at Trio. Christine is a great writer, and her blog really celebrates the fun of the girls, rather than just the endless work.

But this week, Christine was trumped. Another co-worker, Suzy, came by and started the conversation with, "Guess what?"

Now back when Max was born, Suzy and some co-workers had bought him a mobile sporting pastel safari animals and playing John Lennon's "Imagine." Suzy's a big Beatles fan, and I knew she and her husband were wanting to start a family one day, so after Tommy was past mobile age, I brought it back to Suzy, assuming she'd need it eventually. When she heard I was pregnant with Sylvia, she brought it back to me. So when she came by and said, "Guess what?" I figured she was pregnant and started calculating how soon she'd need the mobile.

And she is pregnant. With quadruplets.

I'm still breaking in a cold sweat typing this, but she's completely chill about it, and even started a blog to document the pregnancy. Check it out at Four-by-two.

(While I don't want to say anything so predictable as "Don't drink the water!," I might add that Christine and Suzy work for the same part of my company, and there are probably no more than 30 employees in that division, which make the odds of having many children at once pretty sobering.)

If you'd like to get an armchair view of the world of multiples, check out their blogs. Me, I'm no longer feeling so put-upon that I had one, single baby unexpectedly.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Recycle Diaries

Ask not why I've been a sluggish poster. I'm typing one-handed right now with a baby on my lap. A baby who just got three vaccines. A snuggly baby who hasn't wanted to do anything but be held and gazed upon for a month. I'm not complaining, but blogging does become difficult.

Somewhere in the last week or so I joined Freecycle.org. If you're not familiar with this, it's a network of Yahoo! groups around the country with the purpose of keeping usable but no longer wanted items out of the landfills and heading toward someone who can use them. Here's how it works:

If you have something to offer or you're looking for something, you send an e-mail to the group indicating "Offer" or "Wanted." You include what the item is and what part of town you live in. If you want something and you're willing to go anywhere in town to get it, you include "willing to travel" in the header. These e-mails go to everyone in the group either as single e-mails (which can get cumbersome) or, as I've opted, as a digest in groups of 25.

Last weekend I got rid of a ton of stuff I found while clearing out the closets in Sylvie's room pre-painting. I also got a bag of trophies for Max, who's obsessed with trophies and awards, whether or not he actually earned them. He's now made an awards display on his bookshelf that includes his chess club participation medals alongside a 4H sewing trophy from 1994.

The Indianapolis Freecycle group has about 15,000 members, so it's fairly active. I've had takers within minutes for everything I've offered. (Amazingly, I was the only one who wanted the bag of old 4H trophies, though.) I've liked everyone who's come to pick up items, and I've just ignored responses to my offerings that seemed silly or greedy. Like, for example, when I offered a never-used crib bumper pad and comforter, and someone wrote back, "Does this include the crib?" Uh, yeah, I thought I'd just throw in a crib with the bumper pad and not bother to mention it.

Anyhoo, if you have items to get rid of and want to know they'll end up with someone who can really use them, or if you'd like to see what you might get for free in your neighborhood, check out Freecycle.org.

Meanwhile, in other recycle news, I've been pining for a sturdy dining room table to replace our current vintage Heywood Wakefield number, which our family size and rowdiness has outgrown. In my head, I was picturing my friend Betsy's table, which has sturdy support on all four corners, is big enough to have a smallish dinner party, and is good-looking but not so pristine that you're afraid to do crafts on it. I hadn't found the right table, and was eyeing a $2,000 job online. So when Betsy, who lives out of state, told me about renovating her kitchen and, in the bargain, getting a new table, I asked, sadly, what she had done with her old table. She said she was going to put it on Craig's List but it was currently sitting in her basement. So I'm getting the beloved table from her. Betsy and her husband were Phil's friends from college, and he took me to meet them when he and I were "just friends" fifteen years ago, where we ate Betsy's homemade waffles and Jon's grilled steak on that table. Years later, I learned to make jewelry on that table. Max and Tommy have cavorted with Jon and Betsy's kids around that table. It's seen a lot of my life, and I love that it'll be there for more, and that Betsy can visit with it when she's in town.

Finally, here's why I'm wishing away Sylvia's baby and toddler years:

Photo from www.annamariahorner.blogspot.com

I saw this great sundress on the blog of designer Anna Maria Horner. If you can't tell, it's made from a small amount of new fabric paired with a vintage embroidered pillowcase -- the kind young ladies embroidered and crocheted for their dowries decades ago. (The post, with additional pictures, is here.) Anna Maria includes instructions for this clever reuse here. By my calculations, I have about four years to hunt up some great vintage linens before Sylvia will be pillowcase-sundress sized.

What have you kept out of a landfill lately?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fun for Nothin' Challenge

I've been a fan of Meg McElwee's for a bit. Meg is a Montessori teacher who just came back to the States after a teaching assignment in Mexico. Her blog, formerly Montessori by Hand and now Sew Liberated, chronicled her life in Mexico, her interactions with the kids, and the ways that she integrated the Montessori philosophy into the classroom. Max is in a magnet Montessori school, so it was fun reading about the program from a teacher's perspective.

Meg also is a fabulous pattern designer. While I was on maternity leave, I made this baby carrier for Sylvia, which is now just awaiting her ability to hold up her head:

And I bought this pattern when I was feeling maternal but longing for the days when I would again have a waist; I plan to make it when the baby fat's off:

Meg just put out a Fun for Nothin' Challenge, asking families to chronicle the creative ways that they have fun with their kids without spending money. You can read about it, in her words, here or by clicking on the Fun for Nothin' icon at the side of my blog. The accompanying Flickr site already contains tons of pictures of kids doing what kids should be doing: running, playing, exploring, creating -- and all without licensed plastic toys or battery-powered handhelds. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One Man's Trash: Power Garage Saling

My parents were in last weekend. They live in Michigan, and Dad volunteered to come here and stain our deck. It hadn't been stained since... oh, the last time he offered to come and stain it. Since then, it's dealt with several blazing hot summers and a golf ball-sized hailstorm, so it was in need of a little TLC.

Here's something you should know about my mom: Since she's retired, she's become a crack garage saler. I mean crack. She and her best friend Gloria head out early on Thursday (the day most sales start, and the best day to scope out the good stuff) and don't return until late afternoon, often with whatever minivan they took out laden with unbelievable bargains. At the beginning of the season Mom will ask what we need, and next time I see her, she'll have it. My coffee carafe is stained and melted on one side? She's got a new one she found for $1. I think it would be cool to have a pedestal cake stand? She's got an unused one from Williams Sonoma for which she paid 50 cents. The boys and Sylvia are at least 50% clothed in garage sale finds: Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom, Baby Gap...

I don't garage sale as much as I'd like, but I love to go out when I can. And over the years I've picked up a few bargains: Unused black Doc Martens for $3.50. Shelby Foote's History of the Civil War for $2 per book. Vintage turquoise canisters that matched my (at the time) vintage turquoise kitchen. And the little wooden chairs for Sylvie that are still awaiting my gaining some painting prowess. So with Mom here on Saturday, I twisted her arm and begged her to head out with me, Tommy, and Sylvia. As you can imagine, with an infant and a toddler in tow, we didn't hit as many sales as she and Gloria typically do, but the kids were golden, and in about five sales, and spending about $32 between us, we picked up some gems.

The biggest coup, from my standpoint, was at the last sale. I'm slowly making Sylvia this hand-quilted wall hanging (from Last-Minute Quilted + Patchwork Gifts) to go over her crib:

I'd decided to get her a red gingham crib skirt to go with it, and found what I wanted at Pottery Barn Kids. But it was a bit rich for my blood -- $59 -- so I figured I'd make her one instead for about $12 or $15. I've been watching for sales on gingham, and I'd even purchased the Pottery Barn Kids matching lamp shade when it was on clearance. And guess what I found at the last garage sale? (I'm sure you're all on pins and needles.) Yep, the red gingham Pottery Barn Kids crib skirt. For $3. I also picked up a great Tommy Hilfiger bed skirt for when Sylvie is in a real bed, as it matched the twin-sized quilt I've envisioned making for her.

We passed up several bargains, including a hand-stitched vintage quilt for $25, vintage McCoy vases for $15, and a serving for eight including bakeware of Pfalzgraf pottery for $15.

Here's what we bought:

  • $7 A kids bike Mom is keeping for when the grandkids visit
  • $1.50 Three pieces of little boys' clothes, including like-new Levi's
  • $3 Crib skirt
  • $3 Bed skirt
  • $1 Four painted ceramic drawer pulls that will work with Sylvie's new dresser
  • $5 Handcrafted wooden box with forged iron handle made by a blacksmith in Door County, Wisconsin*
  • $3 Leather Coach purse (I just learned the style is "Station Bag"; who knew?)
  • $.15 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory card game that Tommy spotted
  • $1 Old Ptery (from Pee-Wee's Playhouse) wind-up toy
  • $1 Old-fashioned kaleidoscope that Mom bought Tommy
  • $2 Plastic dart board, in the box, that Mom bought Max
  • Free Vintage Santa candle that Tommy spotted and the homeowner threw in for free
* Note that I was on the fence about the handcrafted box, but when Tommy started doing the pee-pee dance and the homeowner immediately came over and offered up her bathroom, I bought the box.
As a testament to Mom's hard-driving bargain style, when Tommy, who loves the 20-year-old series Pee-Wee's Playhouse, saw the Ptery wind-up toy, I immediately snatched it up, knowing we wouldn't be seeing another any time soon. Mom saw the price and clucked her tongue, noting, "They're asking a dollar for it!" I forked over the dollar, without even trying to bargain, feeling a bit indulgent.
At this point, it looks like I'll be spending the weekend painting Sylvie's room a cream color, as the apple-green-with-purple-trim Phil painted the room six years ago isn't going to go with her new gingham digs. I'm a little sad to be spending all day Saturday in her room, though, because who knows what kind of bargains might be awaiting me?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hunkering Down, with Recipe

Really. This Indiana monsoon weather can stop any time. Any time. After a huge storm completely flooded out many Indiana residents last weekend, including these poor folks in Franklin, Mother Nature whipped up something awful again Monday night.
I was at work when the sky went black and rain and heavy winds blasted out of nowhere. I contemplated picking the kids up early, but learned that the nastiness had already ripped through the part of town where they're in daycare, so waited out the storm and left at the usual time. On the way to pick them up, it was clear this was no normal Indiana rainstorm. Tree limbs were everywhere, and a tree had fallen on one of the apartment buildings behind their daycare center.

Driving the kids home, I noticed block after block out of power. Most traffic lights were down, and all of us rush-hour drivers had to relearn the art of taking turns at each intersection. I picked up McDonald's for the kids (so sue me), not knowing whether we'd have power, or even a house, when we got home. Two blocks from our house a huge tree, complete with its root system, had just toppled down, miraculously missing the house on the same lot. It looked like the hand of God had reached down and flicked it right over. Across the street from our house, a big tree had cracked in half and lay in the road.

Our house was powerless, but intact. The boys ate their happy meals; I fed Sylvia. Phil gathered up no-power supplies like flashlights and candles, and then drove my freezer supply of breastmilk to a friend's house who hadn't lost power. (This is the curse of breastfeeding; the first thing you think in any crisis is "What about the breastmilk???!!!")

As night fell, the realization of a TV-less night started dawning on Tommy and Max. I explained to Tommy that we didn't have any power, and he would say, "Well, then go get more power." Like I could pick it up at Target, along with some diapers. So I suggested we learned about a family who lived before TVs even existed, and pulled out my second-grade copy of Little House in the Big Woods. I love this book. I've probably read it five times as an adult.

We started reading about Laura and Mary and Pa and Ma preparing for a long winter: butchering, salting, smoking, braiding, harvesting. A few pages into it, Max was riveted. He would say things like, "Don't read any more! I have to go to the bathroom!" Then he'd come back and we'd continue on. The next morning, the house still powerless, he woke me up early to see if we could read more. We sat together and ate generic Mini-Wheats without milk and read, just like our forebears.

Today the electricity's back on, so in honor of campfire cooking, I made ranch beans in the slow cooker. These are protein-packed, relatively inexpensive, pretty yummy, and largely made from ingredients you likely have on hand.

Slow-Cooker Ranch Beans

1 pound ground hamburger
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 15-oz. cans baked beans
1 15-oz. can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. Worchestire sauce
1/4 cup catsup
1 Tbsp. prepared mustard

Brown the hamburger with the onion. Add this, as well as the rest of the ingredients, to a slow cooker, and cook on a low setting 8 to 10 hours. Enjoy after a long day hunting.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Poll: What to Do with a Windfall

Over Memorial Day weekend I was at my parents' house in Michigan for my niece's high school graduation. My parents still live in the house I grew up in: a little 1100-square foot 1950s ranch that back in the day had only one bathroom for the five of us to fight over. The house sits in a cute subdivision in which all of the streets carry nautical names: Embarcadero, Aquarina, Levee... It also has a subdivision beach sitting on a man-made lake. When I was a child, we lived at the beach every summer, and it's still an active, fun place for kids. This weekend included a Memorial Day parade; a "holiday egg hunt" that was actually a delayed Easter egg hunt, as Easter was too cold this year to have kids outside hunting up eggs; and various beach fun. During the egg hunt, I was approached to buy a raffle ticket for $1; I had a few bucks in my back pocket in case the kids wanted something from the concession stand -- known as the Wienie Shack when I was growing up. So I bought a ticket and forgot to ask what was being raffled.

That afternoon I got a call at my parents' house saying I'd won the raffle, which turned out to be half the money the raffle had taken in. Seeing as they'd sold $125 of tickets, I won a jackpot of $62.50. Phil suggested that this was about enough gas money to get us home -- actually, it was just under the $62.62 it took to fill our van for the return trip. But I reminded him that this little windfall was mine, and that I'd put the $1 I spent back into our joint money, but that left me with $61.50 all to myself. I've been ruminating for a week now on how to spend it. Here's what I've come up with:

The indulgent purchase. This likely would be a baby pouch from Wallababy that I covet but don't really need. One of the women in a breastfeeding support group I attended while on leave owns Wallababy, and the slings are adorable and handy. We have a Snugli, which is also handy if a little more cumbersome, so I don't really need the sling. But the $45 pouch price is now well within my extra cash.

The super-indulgent purchase. This would be something that I absolutely don't need, and that doesn't serve any real purpose except to make me happy. Like, say, a few bottles of wonderful wine to share with friends, or a little splurge at my favorite online window-shopping site, ReproDepot.com, where I can pick up fun fabric like Lil' Cowpokes to make a cute quilt for Sylvia:

Saving toward a big purchase. Back when we were moving to a Brooklyn apartment, we purchased a vintage Heywood Wakefield table and chairs, which served us well when our single friends were gathered around, eating sushi and drinking sake. Since we've started having kids, however, the table, which only comfortably seats four, has started feeling teetery and a little too delicate for our growing-family, heavy-use needs. I've been dreaming of a big, solid, distressed farm table with supports on all four corners and enough room to spread out crafts or serve a big potluck meal. So the $61.50 could be the seed money for a solid replacement table, which even after selling our Heywood Wakefield set, could cost several hundred dollars.

Investing. This is why I'm an amateur tightwad: Even though $61.50 could go far in the next several years if invested in stock or in one of the kids' 529s, I haven't gotten too excited about this option. But it's an option. And a good one. Probably the right one.

So a poll, which you might have noticed at the top of the page: If you came into a little windfall, how would you spend it? I'll leave this poll up until my birthday at the end of the month, at which time I'll take your advice to heart and see where my riches should go.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Yes, You Really Can Bake Bread

I learned about the relatively new baking book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, from one of my favorite blogs, Angry Chicken. The title of the book isn't misleading: Once you mix up a big batch of dough, baking a loaf of wonderful bread takes literally less than five minutes of hands-on time.

Here's the concept: You make enough dough for about three or four round loaves of bread. The dough is wetter than dough I've made in the past, and it doesn't require kneading -- just combining a few ingredients (water, salt, flour, yeast, plus some extras based on the recipe). Making the dough takes me less than 10 minutes using a stand mixer. It would likely take a bit longer by hand, but not inordinately so. This makes a lot of dough. I store mine, covered with plastic wrap, in a big yellow Pyrex bowl that my mom received as a wedding gift in 1955.

Then, after the dough has chilled a bit, you just pull off a hunk, spend about 15 seconds forming it into a ball, slash the top, and let it rise for 20 or 40 minutes, depending on the bread. Then bake it. The hunk of dough can stay in the fridge for two weeks, and my experience is that it just gets better tasting the longer it sits. The recipes say that the batch will make four loaves, but I find three is more accurate for my baking.

Since I got the book a month or so ago (using an Amazon gift certificate, so no money was spent), I've made a white batch and a wheat batch of bread. Both were fantastic. I made one loaf of the white dough into an olive loaf using a half-empty jar of black olives that were shoved in the back of the fridge. The wheat bran bread was especially good -- great toasted and spread with PB. The loaves aren't completely like one you would get in a little French bistro, but they're better than any other homemade bread I've made, and they resemble and largely taste like the $4 loaves at a local sandwich shop.

The book has been a bestseller, so most libraries will stock it. Once you read the intro and understand the technique, the basic recipe is easy to memorize. Unless you're looking to make lots of variations, like sweet rolls, you wouldn't need to buy the book after spending a little time with a library copy. I'm not sorry to own it, and some day will try some of the more involved recipes, but for now am happy to be able to make bread cheaply and quickly that tastes fantastic. If you're interested in learning more, the authors keep up a nice website at http://www.artisanbreadinfive.com/.

Following my first week back to work -- and it was a doozy, with computer problems, major work projects, and a nasty bout of food poisoning -- we're off to see my family in Michigan for my niece's high school graduation. Where does the time go? Seems she was just a toddler. Have a fantastic, long holiday weekend!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Breaking the Price = Quality Assumption

I've continued to be intrigued by a short article I read a month ago in Newsweek; the article told of two studies involving wine tastings. The first, conducted by writer Robin Goldstein, involved blind tastings of more than 500 wines by 500 tasters ranging from novices to wine experts. The wines ranged in price from $1.50 to $150. Wines were encased in brown paper bags so that the tasters didn't see labels; they simply rated the wines on merit, not perception. The result? Cheap wines often outperformed their $50 counterparts.

A similar study in January had tasters rating wines in which they were given both true and false prices for the wines (in other words, a $50 wine was told to be $5). The result? Testers almost always preferred what they thought to be a higher-priced wine.

Purely in the name of research, I recently revisited "Two-Buck Chuck," or Charles Shaw wine available only at Trader Joe's. This wine has gotten a lot of buzz since it was introduced several years ago, and I often see people buying cases of the bargain vino. This product began as a $1.99 bottle on the West coast, but here in Indiana, it's $2.99, so technically "Three-Buck Chuck." I'd tried, I believe, a Merlot years ago and thought it was horrid. Armed with the knowledge that I might have dismissed the wine simply based on its price, I recently tried a Shiraz. And, you know, I liked it.

I then remember reading an anecdote in a magazine, although I have no idea where I read it. Likely, it was one of the pieces of wisdom I gleaned from Glamour magazine back in high school. But here's the story: A woman with a flagging jewelry business found that no one was buying her pieces. So she asked her assistant to reduce the prices by 50 percent. The assistant instead accidentally doubled the price. The result? The pieces sold out. Consumers felt that the higher-priced items were more valuable.

I found myself doing this same thing last week when out with a friend, who also has a newborn. We stopped at Baby Gap, and I was contemplating a clearance-priced cotton sweater for Sylvia. I scraped back the "$6.99" clearance sticker to see the item's original price. If it was $29, I'd feel like I was really getting a bargain, and feel more compelled to snatch it up. If it was $19, I'd feel less so. The original price, however, didn't change anything about the sweater: cotton, striped, cardigan-style. Either it was worth $6.99 to me or it wasn't. The original value placed on it by executives at The Gap shouldn't affect that value.

In watching our budget, this is one area I find where I need to be extra diligent: Purchasing items based on their value to me, not assuming that higher prices mean better quality or more desirability.
The first wine study, by the way, resulted in a book called The Wine Trials: 100 wines under $15 that beat $50 to $150 wines in brown-bag blind tastings. The book, which published earlier this month, might be worth reading, but Amazon is currently sold out. I suppose everyone's looking to be more diligent about disassociating price from perception!

The Agony of Defeat: Book Diet Over

A rather embarrassingly short time ago I mentioned that I'd been on a Book Diet: No more purchasing new books until I worked through some of my backlog. Oh, the life of an addict. Today, I'm sad to say, I broke the diet, so the ticker at the side of the screen has been reset to zero. But hear me out.

Max attends a magnet Montessori school here in town, and like most public (and private) schools, they have year-round fundraisers to subsidize their budget. A few weeks ago I packed up a couple big bags of books to donate to the annual book sale. The sale was yesterday and today, and I stopped in to look. Just to look. But with 25-cent books, I had no chance of making it out of their book-free.

In the end, I splurged and spent 75 cents: Cokie Roberts' Founding Mothers for me, a book about Mount Everest for Max, and a Max and Ruby book for Tommy. My book was a hardcover, lovingly inscribed for Mothers Day 2004 "with all our love and admiration." I felt the book needed to be rescued. Really. A Mother's Day gift discarded to the community room at an elementary school?

Meanwhile, on the way guiltily back from Max's school, I spotted a huge yard sale and scored two all-wood classic-style kids' chairs for Sylvia. Ever since I saw the magnificent but out-of-my-budget table and chairs sets at Lilipad Studio, I've been dreaming of finding a second-hand set and painting them myself. I'm especially drawn to this butterfly set:

Now I just need to acquire a wooden table and some painting talent.

It's my last day of maternity leave (are the tears smearing the type as you read this?), so I'm going to get off the computer and enjoy my last day dedicated to Sylvia. She's sleeping quietly, but I'm thinking I might need to wake her up and make her entertain me for a while.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quick Craft: Microwaveable Heating Pads

If you're likely to receive a gift from me in the coming year, you might want to stop reading now. This is going to be my new go-to gift, and I'd hate to ruin any surprise.

Last week I caught a few minutes of Martha, just in time for Ms. Stewart to show us all a "good thing" of making homemade heating pads. The video clip and instructions are here. The heating pads are basically just long pillows filled with, in Martha's case, dried cherry pits (available through an orchard) or buckwheat hulls. You can then microwave the pillows and wrap them around whatever body part is ailing you.

The craft is incredibly easy, taking about 15 minutes start to finish, and the dimensions of the piece of fabric you cut to make the pad are just a couple inches shorter and skinnier than a fat quarter (a fat quarter being 18 inches by 22 inches). I still had a short stack of fat quarters from the Anna Maria Horner Chocolate Lollipop sampler I'd bought and made pillows from, so thought I'd try this, but I wasn't keen on ordering and paying for shipping on dried cherry pits or buckwheat hulls. Then I remembered reading or hearing somewhere that you can make little microwaveable heating pads filled with rice. I had a jar of sushi rice that had been in my pantry for, I don't know, a year waiting for me to be inspired to learn to make maki. Hadn't happened yet, and likely wouldn't. So I made a heating pad with the fabric, the sushi rice, and because I didn't have quite enough sushi rice, some additional jasmine rice from a 20-pound bag in the pantry.

The day before I made the heating pad had been Field Day at Max's school, and I'd hauled Sylvia around in her car seat for the morning -- swinging the seat to get her to sleep, carrying her up and down the stairs to an unused room in the basement to nurse her four times, and walking from field to classroom to cafeteria to accompany Max's class. My back was pooped. The heating pad was a good buddy right after I made it; it produces a moist heat that lasts about 15 or 20 minutes, and it's more malleable than a traditional heating pad. Very nice when, say, watching an episode of The War and knitting a long-abandoned scarf. Max also loved the pad, lolling all over it, apparently nursing his kindergarten aches and pains.

Reading comments on the Martha site, I found I could also use feed corn to fill the pads. One commenter even mentioned that buckwheat groats and seeds could be used, but hulls shouldn't be microwaved; I'm guessing they might be flammable. I didn't test this myself, but having set some popcorn-on-the-cob on fire in our microwave, I'm erring on the side of caution and staying away from the hulls.

After a quick and inexpensive trip to our bulk-stocking local health-food store, I made two more heating pads, one with corn and one with buckwheat groats, using some fabric extras I had around. (Yes, the image is on its side; my apologies.)

Here's how this quick craft stacks up financially:
  • My original fabric was about $3, but I've had it long enough that I could probably consider it stash, in which case it would be free. Fat quarters are generally about $1 at basic craft stores, more at specialty fabric stores.
  • The best price I could find on rice is 25 pounds for $15.00 at Costco, or 60 cents per pound. The pad needed about 2 pounds, so rice filling is about $1.20.
  • The dried corn was 80 cents per pound, although it was organic and you could probably find cheaper non-organic if you were so inclined; my health-food store only carries organic. The pad needed about 2-1/2 pounds, so organic corn filling is about $2.00.
  • The groats were $1.25 per pound. Again, these were organic so might be cheaper if you could find a non-organic source. The pad needed about 2 pounds, so buckwheat groat filling is about $2.50. (Martha's source also had groats, but they were $6.99 for 2 pounds, plus shipping.)

I found that the heating pads made with rice or groats need to be microwaved about 3 minutes, and the pad filled with corn needed to be microwaved about 4 minutes.

At around $3 each, I'm thinking that with a cute tag, these little stress relievers are going to be making appearances in the next year as teacher gifts, co-worker gifts, holiday gifts, just-because gifts...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day!

Due to some kind of Mother's Day miracle, it's 8:15 and all three kids are in bed. Phil and I are going to watch a movie, and I might actually make it to the end before konking out.

My brother and his wife and their three kids drove here yesterday and stayed in town overnight. Like us, they have two boys, followed somewhat unexpectedly by a girl. This was their first time meeting Sylvia, and I hadn't seen their kids since the Christmas holiday, so it was wonderful to get together, compare newish-baby notes, and watch four boys play themselves silly.

Phil gave me the coolest present. Along with some dark chocolate, which I adore, he framed three photos of each of the kids. Each are from the same photo "session," so there are three of Max posing on his bike:

Three of Tommy diving into his chocolate Easter bunny:

And three of Sylvia hanging out in her bouncy chair:

I'm not sure how I'm going to match that in a month, come Father's Day.

I hope you all of you moms had as wonderful a day. Hats off to all the moms, especially mine, who is as good as they come. Thank you for everything, Mom!

(Meanwhile, I just discovered Retro Housewife, where the header photo came from, and am loving it. Too fun. Check it out.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

It's All About Meme

My college roommate Julia, over at the superfun Hooked on Houses, tagged me last week for a meme: Six Interesting Things About Me. It was fun reading Julia's responses on the meme. Even after living with Julia for three years, pulling untold all-nighters for English papers due the next day, and analyzing for hundreds of hours whether the objects of our affection were into us, there were plenty of things I found I didn't know about her.

I'm tagging my Mom, Eleanore; my mother-in law, Leneta, and my friends Kim, Amy, Kitty, and Cynthia. (Don't feel obliged to do this, though, when you get the e-mail, taggees.)

Six Interesting (or Not So) Things About Me
1. This is the most recent CD I purchased:

I bought it last week, and I feel I've already gotten my $9.99's worth many times over. I make no apologies, except to my kids, who have had to since endure my tuneless renditions of such classics as "Daybreak" and "Mandy." Rock on.

2. I feel very strongly about making environmentally sustainable, healthy food choices, yet find myself like a moth to a flame when confronted with Peeps or Brown Sugar Cinnamon PopTarts.
3. I'm very intimidated in the kitchen and when making crafts, and often have to think through the most simple recipe or pattern for days before attempting it.

4. I'm a Lansbury, and related to Angela -- although I won't be hurt should she shut me out of her will. I love Ms. Lansbury's decades of work; my favorites being Mrs. Lovett from the 1982 stage version of Sweeney Todd, and saucy maid Nancy Oliver from 1944's Gaslight:

While I think Angela Lansbury seems to be both a very nice person and one heck of a crime fighter, I'm most proud of being related to Angela's grandfather, George Lansbury, who served on Parliament in England for 20 years in the first half of the twentieth century, and led the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935.
George Lansbury was a socialist who lived among the working class and truly labored to improve conditions. He paid for his down-on-his-luck brother and his brother's family (wife and two toddler daughters) to travel from England to Canada and set up a new life just after the turn of the century. One of the toddler daughters was my maternal grandmother, Edith Lansbury Wilson, the only grandparent I had growing up. She taught me to knit when I was six years old.
5. I won the fifth grade spelling bee at my school, but went down in the city competition on the word "jeans." That's right. Jeans.

6. I said for months that I didn't care whether Sylvia was a boy or a girl, and that it would be so much fun to have another boy, but the truth is, I was secretly rooting for a girl. Thanks for obliging me, Sylvie.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Finance Games: The Non-Food Diet, with Drink Recipe

The word "diet" is not my favorite, as I'm typing this a month and a half after having a third baby. But humor me.

The New York Times published an interesting article Sunday about what they termed the Recession Diet. The crux was that over the past year, more so over the past several months, the combination of economic uncertainty and high gas and food prices has significantly changed spending habits. More people are going for generics, eating in, and embarking on lower-priced home renovations.

This made me think about a recent non-food diet I'd put myself on: Books. Phil and I both work in publishing and love love love books. We give each other books for presents, buy books on the bargain table we're sure we're going to read some day, give ourselves a little pick-me-up by purchasing a new book on the Times bestseller list. When I started my maternity leave, I took a look at the books on our shelves and the number of my books I'd bought or been given or received at trade shows, and realized it would be a year or more before I read through the backlog. So I put myself on a diet.

I made a few guidelines. I don't consider myself cheating in the following situations:
  • A book is given to me.
  • The book is truly necessary. So I don't consider a recent purchase of What to Expect the First Year, which replaces the one I gave to Goodwill after we were "finished" having kids, to be cheating. Determining what is "necessary" rests solely on me.
  • The book is purchased with a gift certificate, so doesn't cost me anything.

Since I started my book diet, I'm on my fourth novel that I owned and had never read. Shameful. Note the new ticker on the side of the screen.

Meanwhile, Max, Tommy, and I all came down with strep this week. Three doctor visits, three rounds of antibiotics, feeling crummy. Last night after the boys got to bed, I was feeling poorly and fondly remembering my pre-kids, pre-nursing days when my good friend Kitty passed on a hot toddy recipe, passed to her by a priest. Kitty said it was the best thing for colds and other ailments -- knocked you right out, and when you woke in the morning, you would likely be feeling better. She was right. Like the sleep aid commercials warn, however, you have to be able to devote yourself to a chunk of sleep, which I haven't been able to do in the six years since I've started having babies. So let me pass it onto you, in case someone out there is a little sickly and better equipped to drink warm alcohol:

Hot Toddy

Go put on your jammies. My remembrance is that you'll have energy maybe to brush your teeth before hitting the hay; you might as well be dressed for bed. In a mug, pour a decent amount of honey (maybe a couple tablespoons), the juice of one lemon, and maybe 3/4 inch of bourbon. Fill the mug the rest of the way with hot water. Feel better.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Home Alternative to the $4 Latte

Back in the 1990s, money experts always started their money-saving tips by trotting out the same advice: to save big bucks, pay off your mortgage early. During a time of 8 to 10 percent interest rates (not so different from today's escalating ARMs, I suppose), eliminating or lowering that house debt as quickly as possible was one change that could rack up big savings.

Today, nearly every piece of financial advice starts with "Skip the daily $4 latte, and instead use that money to [invest/save for retirement/pay down debt]." And for a while, the advice fell on deaf and highly caffeinated ears. With the current economic situation, however, it seems that people are either choosing or being forced to give up their premium coffee. Recent projections from Starbucks show that the once unstoppable giant is continuing to see declining year-over-year sales in stores and is responding by closing stores, rethinking merchandising, and getting back to basics. Shareholders are now being told to expect 15 cents earnings per share, down from last year's 19 cents per share, and these projections might be rosier than what will actually play out.

The good news is that it's pretty easy to make good coffee drinks at home -- without a $1,000 cappuccino machine.
The stovetop espresso maker (or Moka) does just that: makes espresso on the stove. You add coffee and water, put the espresso maker on a burner, and the water is put under pressure and shot through the coffee. Purists will tell you that these espresso makers actually make really strong coffee, not true espresso (which is made by forcing steam through espresso grounds), but for my palette, the taste is close enough that I can't tell a difference.
You'll find $90 stovetop espresso machines at specialty stores, but I don't find that pricey ones are necessary. I'm still using one I bought for $6 at Save on Fifth, a grocery store in Brooklyn, probably long gone by now. The best online prices I've found for the espresso makers are here -- about $14 plus shipping for the single-serving size. You might be able to find one in a Mexican grocery for less, however.

The milk frother froths and, in some cases, heats milk for coffee drinks. I have a stainless steel milk frother that I received as a wedding gift. To use it, I just add milk, heat it on the stove, and then pump the rod in the lid up and down, like a butter churn, to froth the milk. These used to be fairly prevalent, but have become a little harder to find, and the price is now around $30. Considering how often I've used this in the 10+ years I've had it, $30 is reasonable, but you might want to go for something a little less pricey. There are lots of frothing options here.

Some specialty drink ideas:
  • Cafe au lait: No tools necessary. Heat milk in a pan until little bubbles form on the side, and then add one part milk, one part coffee to your mug. I'm lazy, so I heat the milk in my mug in the microwave, and then add hot coffee.

  • Steamer: Using the frothing pitcher, pour in milk and coffee syrup of your choice. I like Torani Hazelnut and French Vanilla, and get large bottles on sale for $5 at World Market. Heat and froth the milk. I've also made steamers with honey, but I add the honey to the mug and pour the hot milk over it, as honey seems like it might muck up the milk frother.

  • Latte: A latte is about 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot milk, 1/3 foamy milk. To make one, I make a single-serving espresso. While it's going, I heat up milk in the frothing pitcher. When both are ready, I pour the hot milk into a mug, using a spoon to hold back the foam, so I'm only pouring hot milk in. Then I add the espresso into the mug, pouring it carefully down the back of a spoon so that it goes gently into the mug. Then I spoon on frothy milk, and sometimes sprinkle on some cinnamon. If you're careful in how you pour, and you're using a glass mug, the espresso, hot milk, and foamed milk settle into really pretty (and impressive) layers.
Now you can spend that saved $4 a day paying off your mortgage early.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cool Site of the Week: Morsbags.com

Don't you love the Internet? I stumbled across morsbags.com after mindlessly wandering through about 15 links. I'm not even sure what I started out looking for, but what a wonderful place to end.

Morsbags are a recyclable answer to the 1 million plastic bags that are consumed globally *every minute*. These seemingly benign bags end up in landfills and oceans, and, if you're going to be Machiavellian, ultimately add to your grocery bill. (I'm not sure about you, but the baggers at my local market seem disinclined to put more than one item in each bag.) I consider myself somewhat conscientious about the blight of plastic shopping bags, but I often forget to keep spare reuseable bags in the car when I go shopping, and find that I have a huge bag full of little plastic shopping bags stuffed in my basement. Multiply my bag stash by hundreds of millions of shoppers, and you see the problem.

Morsbags.com offers a free, easy sewing pattern (great for recycling old sheets) for reusable fabric shopping bags. The site also has a cool map showing, globally, the number of morsbags that have been made and reported. Each bag has the potential to eliminate dozens of these throwaway plastic bags.

At the time I'm writing this, nearly 18,000 morsbags have been made. If each is used a dozen times, which is likely a conservative estimate, that's 216,000 plastic bags that won't be getting into the stomachs of marine life, or ending up flapping off trees in our parks.

I attend industry trade shows periodically, and consequently have a plethora of logo-emblazoned tote bags. Morsbags.com made me get off my butt and actually put the tote bags in the car so that I have no excuse for using plastic shopping bags. In addition, I'm going to make morsbags for Max and Tommy out of an old sheet from Max's room, so that they can help at the grocery store and start to internalize that we don't need throwaway plastic bags.

Happy sewing!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Free Entertainment: The Midwest Earthquake

Sylvia's sleeping patterns have been changing lately. While she now is willing to go to bed before 1 or 2 a.m., the result is that she's waking up hungry and crabby sometime between 4 and 6 a.m. Last night she woke up a little after 5 a.m.

So I feed her and change her and am quietly rocking her in her room, listening to the only sound in the house, which is Max's hamster running frantically on her hamster wheel, when a truck hits the house. The room shakes. Sylvie hardly notices; no one else wakes up. What the...?

I run into our room and whack Phil a few times. "Get up! Something weird is happening!" In the best of circumstances, Phil isn't a morning person. But I yell, "The room *shook*!" and he snaps to.

He tells me, "I'm going to get my glasses and put some pants on," which I interpret to mean, "I'm going to get my glasses and put some pants on." What he really means is, "While you take our infant downstairs to investigate, I'm going to go to the bathroom and then head right back to bed." Which is what he does. When I come back upstairs to find out what the holdup is, he says, groggily, "everything look okay?"

What does he expect? "No. A madman drove a tanker full of explosives against the house, but Sylvie and I took him on." Or, "Well, the furnace exploded, but Sylvie and I were able to make all necessary repairs."

So I guilt him into getting up and at least checking the furnace. On the way, we check the TV, and learn that West Salem, Illinois, experienced an earthquake registering 5.2 (whatever that scale actually means), and that I'd felt the reverberations from the quake. The news channel is featuring folks from around the state calling in, even more freaked out than me, telling their experiences -- most of which were as unremarkable as mine. ("I woke up, and the headboard was actually *shaking*. No, nothing else happened. But the headboard *shook*.")

Considering that the most exciting thing I had planned for the morning was getting ready to meet a friend for lunch, it did start the day with a bang.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quick Craft: Quilty Pillows

A couple months ago I bought a collection of 16 fat quarters (18-inch-by-22-inch pieces of fabric) from Anna Maria Horner's Chocolate Lollipop fabric collection; we were doing some work with Anna Maria, and with our marketing manager expecting a daughter, I thought it would be fun to make her a baby quilt using some of Anna Maria's fabric. The quilt was only going to take three or four fat quarters, which left me with about a dozen more pieces of this gorgeous, colorful fabric. What to do?

Then I was lounging in the TV room, technically a first-floor bedroom that we made into a small family room. We live in that room. And it shows. This day I actually looked at the bedraggled pillow on the love seat, which I'd grown used to:

So I decided some of the extra fabric needed to perk up our dumpy TV room.

The fabric has big, bold patterns that would look great with a little extra texture. Because I was feeling all maternal and wanting to do some hand stitching, I made mini-quilts of the pillow tops, backing the pillow fabric with some quilt batting and a piece of muslin. Then I hand-quilted around random parts of the pattern. When each pillow top was finished, I machine-sewed three sides of the mini-quilt to the pillow back, stuffed in a 16-inch pillow form, and hand-sewed the fourth side.

I like the slight texture that the hand-quilting gave the pillow tops; you don't even really notice it, but I think it gives even more depth to this great fabric. And the hand-quilting was a relaxing way to hang out with the boys while watching Speed Racer episodes.

Cost of the project:
About $9 per pillow: $3 for the patterned fabric, $5 for the pillow form, $.50 for the muslin, and $.50 for the solid-colored backing. The quilt batting came from some batting scraps I had from other projects, so it was free.

How to make it cheaper:

  • Not using specialty fabric, which is about two to four times as expensive as sale fabric at a store like JoAnn's. Or better yet, for prolific sewers with good stashes, using leftover fabric. Vintage fabric from the 60s, if you can score it at thrift stores, would make incredible floor pillows.
  • Using regular pillow forms, which would have been about $2.50, rather than getting sucked into buying the "eco-form," whatever "eco" means in this case. Better yet, recovering existing throw pillows.
Random thoughts:
After extensive usability testing, Tommy certified the pillows 100% nappable:

Monday, April 14, 2008

Ancient American Secret

Recently my sister-in-law brought over a Boppy for me to borrow. Mind you, I had a Boppy. I hadn't even gotten rid of it during the great we're-done-having-kids purge of 2007, which was followed closely by the oh-dear-we're-having-a-third-kid realization that same year. But I did ruin the Boppy by throwing it in the washer, which those liars at The Boppy Company say you can do, but which I found to matte the stuffing to both ends of the horseshoe, rendering it basically lumpy and useless.

But, as always, I digress.

My sister-in-law dropped by her Boppy, and also brought me a present: A bar of Fels-Naptha soap. (Yes, it thounds like you're lithping when you say it.) The soap quietly sits in the grocery store, devoid of corrugated displays and celebrity endorsers. In fact, I'd never heard of it, although my mom, who was in town at the time, was amazed to see the soap and packaging. She remembered her mom taking a paring knife and cutting off little pieces to use as laundry soap back in the 1940s. Her best friend Gloria's mom also used Fels-Naptha for laundry, grating the soap into the washer using a bell-shaped cheese grater. The soap, now produced by Dial Corporation, has been around for about 100 years.

Laura, my SIL, swore by this as a stain remover, and I was interested to try it after I worked through the Spray and Wash Stain Stick I'd recently purchased. My experience told me that it would be about 17 hours before the stain stick was gone, based on the number of spit-up/blow-out incidents a newborn brings to the table.

So when Sylvia took a five-hour nap and woke up having unspeakably soiled her lovely pink "Fun to Be Me!" onesie and polka-dot pants, I held my nose and stain sticked the mess. Later, I crossed my fingers and threw the clothes in the laundry. As I'd feared, they came out largely clean, but with an unmistakable shadow of the stains. Sigh. I know from experience these shadows don't go away, but with nothing to lose, I wet the spots down and rubbed some Fels-Naptha on them, Laura's praise for the soap fresh in my mind. Then a bit later, threw them in with some laundry.

And hand-to-God, the stain was gone when the clothes emerged from the washer. Just gone. Sylvie's wearing the outfit today, and she can hold her wobbly head high.

I did a little web research, and learned that Fels-Naptha has been a miracle elixir for frugal families for years. The site SoapsGoneBuy.com carries 12 five-star reviews, along with customer-supplied and traditional uses and laundry recipes for the soap for everything from an aphid deterrent to a face wash. (I'm going to trust them on that last one; I don't see washing my uber-sensitive skin in something that can power out set-in diaper stains.)

You can buy the soap online at SoapsGoneBuy.com, or at select grocery stores. My sister-in-law found the bar she gave me at Kroger. The cost will be between $1 and $2 for a huge bar that will take out stains for the next several years.

The big question now is what do I do with the half-used stain stick?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The 7-cent Breakfast

I've started attending a weekly breastfeeding support group. It's really just a group of women who meet at the hospital and have access to a baby scale and some great advice from some experienced and comforting lactation consultants. It's been good meeting other women -- most of whom will also be returning to work soon. And I love the group leader. At last week's meeting, I asked her what I should do to treat my mastitis, and she told me to "leave here and go straight to bed." I like the way she thinks.

At the meeting, I'm learning about foods that are supposed to produce more milk. Weird things like pineapple and oatmeal. Who would have guessed? I love oatmeal, but have gotten out of the habit of eating it because I get distracted while I'm cooking it on the stove in the morning, and it always boils over when I try cooking it in the microwave. But the leader suggested a really simply way to make it in the morning, and I've been eating it every morning now.

In a big (4-cup) Pyrex measuring cup, add half a cup slow-cooking oats to 1 cup of water. Microwave it for about 2 minutes (my microwave is slow, so I do 2 minutes, 20 seconds). It's ready.

For years I've been refilling an old Quaker Oats container with oats I buy in bulk from a local health food store. The bulk oats are 70 cents for non-organic, and $1.30 for organic. There didn't used to be such a price disparity between the two varieties, and at my last trip, I went cheap and bought the non-organic. Because a pound of oats yields ten breakfasts worth of oatmeal, a bowl is 7 cents. Extras like dried fruit, nuts, and honey obviously increase the cost, but you'd have to add a lot of extras to get up to a $3 Starbucks muffin.

I have been adding a couple Tablespoons of raisins every morning, which, at the cheapest consistent price I can get them, adds another 8 cents or so. So it's 15 cents for breakfast. Not too shabby.

If you want to try your oatmeal cold with milk, here's my favorite granola recipe. It's largely from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook with minor tweaks. The author does everything bigger than life, so the quantities I use are cut in half from the book.

Really Good Granola

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
1 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
Up to 2 cups dried fruit, like raisins, cranberries, figs, or apricots (clean out your pantry, and cut any large fruit into the size of a raisin)
Up to 1/2 cup other nuts, like sunflower seeds, cashews, walnuts, or pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the oats, coconut, and almonds together in a bowl. In another boil, mix together the oil and honey. Pour the honey mixture over the oats mixture and stir to coat the oats. Pour everything onto a 9-by-13 baking sheet. Bake for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, and being sure that the oats aren't burning. The granola will be a lovely golden brown color when it's ready.

After the granola has cooled, add the dried fruit and additional nuts, and you're ready for breakfast.

This makes a great gift packed into quart, or even pint, canning jars.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mommy's Little Tax Deduction

Meet Sylvia.
The weeks leading to her birth were very hectic and highly uncomfortable, and I've spent the last several weeks enjoying her and largely steering clear of my computer.
Today she turned a month old. She's starting to smile, getting a bit saucy and loud in her requests for food and attention, gave me mastitis this week (which, along with the wholely uncomfortable pregnancy, I'll remind her of any time she causes me hardship during the teenage years), and loves to snuggle. We hadn't planned on Sylvia, but I already can't imagine our family without her.

The whole family, minus one photographer, wearing an unspeakably ugly hospital gown and recovering from a c-section 12 hours earlier.

If only she'd come three months earlier, so we could receive an extra $300 on the upcoming tax-relief package!