Low-Budget Food Challenge: Day 1 Recap

It’s the end of day 1 of my 7-day low-budget food challenge. Spoiler alert: I already cheated, which means I add $5 more to my donation to Feeding America.

Strangely, I woke up hungry. I’ve never been a big breakfast eater, so this was a little odd for me. I was planning to have a scrambled egg and potatoes for breakfast, but I got a last minute invite to go flea marketing and wouldn’t have time for the potatoes to cook. So I had a scrambled egg, toast, and a banana for breakfast. I felt kind of full, but not really. A second egg probably would’ve done the trick, but I only have 6 to last me the week.

We got to the flea market about 45 minutes after I had breakfast and I started to get hungry. Then I was starving. I was on the verge of headache starving. I continued to tell myself I could wait until I got home and have a peanut butter sandwich and carrots. Slowly the awful hunger started to go away, and I was only slightly hungry. But I cheated. I went to Firehouse Subs and got a turkey sub and chips. Part of this was because I was with someone who wanted to go out to lunch, but also because I was just really hungry and I didn’t do a great job exercising self-control. I can say with relative certainty that I would have still been hungry after a peanut butter sandwich and carrots.

I also walked around Total Wine with a friend and sampled a bunch of things, which was free. I bought a few gifts, but nothing that I’ll be consuming this week.

I made this chili for dinner using the ground beef, canned tomatoes, and chili seasoning I bought. I also used some of the beans and an onion, but I still have plenty of each left over. The chili was filling enough, and I have plenty left over to reheat throughout the week.

I analyzed today’s nutrition as if I hadn’t cheated for lunch using the USDA SuperTracker. This would have been 839 calories for the entire day, being under target for grains, vegetables, fruits, and proteins – and no dairy at all. (Note: I had the choice to move the beans in the chili from the veggie to the protein basket, but I left them in the veggie basket. I moved them to the protein basket, and I was OK for protein.) I was under target for most vitamins and minerals, and over for fat. When I analyzed what I actually ate, my day was 1180 calories. I was close to the target for protein, and had some dairy.

We’ll see how I do tomorrow. I plan to eat an egg and potatoes for breakfast (which I will likely make tonight and reheat because it’s Monday tomorrow and I’m not a morning person), and I’ll stop for one of the 5 McDonald’s coffees I’ve budgeted for. I’m going to pack a serving of chili, half a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, carrots, and a banana in my lunch box for a combination of lunch and snacks. For dinner, I might eat chili, or I might roast the whole chicken I bought.

Simple Chili (for low-budget food challenge)

Simple Chili

One of the meals I made to last most of the week for the low-budget food challenge was a simple chili. I was surprised I was able to pull this off without my usual poblano and jalapeno peppers, among other ingredients. This isn’t the best chili I’ve made, but it tasted good and it was quite filling.

I made this in the dutch oven, but it could easily be made in any large pot. It could also be made in a slow cooker after browning the beef.

Servings: 7

The 7 total servings is based on 1½ cups per serving – the recipe makes 10½ cups of chili.

Ingredients

  • ½ pound ground beef (I used 80% lean, and the package I bought was just short of a half pound at 0.44 pounds)
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • ½ cup dry black beans
  • ½ cup dry kidney beans
  • 1 – 28oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 packet McCormick Original Chili Seasoning
  • 1 tbsp salt

Instructions

Soak beans per the instructions on the bag, either quick soak or overnight method. Do not get rid of the liquid!

Preheat a large pot over medium heat. Add ground beef and cook until brown, stirring occasionally and breaking up the pieces. (Note: Normally I would start with olive oil and cook some garlic and onions first, but being limited in resources due to the challenge, I did not have olive oil to use, and I didn’t want to waste any of the butter. I decided the fat from the beef would be just fine for cooking the onions.)

Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent. Add beans (including the liquid from soaking), canned tomatoes, chili seasoning, and salt. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook for at least 20 minutes. I let mine simmer for about an hour (stirring occasionally) because I was doing other things, but it would have been fine to eat after 20 minutes.

Nutritional Information (per serving)

I estimated the nutritional information using the recipe builder on the USDA SuperTracker. If you’re on a low sodium diet, you can reduce the amount of sodium by about 78% if you don’t add the 1tbsp of salt to the recipe.

Nutrient
Amount
% of Daily Target or Limit
Total Calories 165 8% limit
Protein 12 g 26% target
Carbohydrate 21 g 16% target
Dietary Fiber 7 g 30% target
Total Sugars 4 g No daily target or limit
Added Sugars 0 g 0% limit
Total Fat 4 g No daily target or limit
Saturated Fat 1 g 6% limit
Monounsaturated Fat 2 g No daily target or limit
Polyunsaturated Fat 1 g No daily target or limit
Linoleic Acid 0 g 2% target
α-Linolenic Acid 0.1 g 10% target
Omega 3 – EPA 1 mg No daily target or limit
Omega 3 – DHA 0 mg No daily target or limit
Cholesterol 18 mg 6% limit
Minerals
Calcium 68 mg 7% target
Potassium 563 mg 12% target
Sodium 1269 mg 55% limit
Copper 224 µg 25% target
Iron 8 mg 42% target
Magnesium 55 mg 17% target
Phosphorus 159 mg 23% target
Selenium 6 µg 11% target
Zinc 2 mg 27% target
Vitamins
Vitamin A 29 µg RAE 4% target
Vitamin B6 0.3 mg 22% target
Vitamin B12 0.6 µg 23% target
Vitamin C 16 mg 21% target
Vitamin D 0 µg 0% target
Vitamin E 1 mg AT 5% target
Vitamin K 6 µg 7% target
Folate 106 µg DFE 27% target
Thiamin 0.8 mg 75% target
Riboflavin 0.1 mg 13% target
Niacin 2 mg 17% target
Choline 34 mg 8% target

Low-Budget Food Challenge: Grocery Shopping

Step 1 of the low-budget food challenge I’m undertaking was grocery shopping. Tomorrow I start the actual challenge. I’m raising money (and donating funds myself) for Feeding America while I do the challenge. If you’d to donate, click here for my fundraising page.

Lessons Learned From Grocery Shopping

  • It was really hard and took twice as long as my usual shopping trips due to the amount of planning needed, and because I went to two stores (in the same shopping center)
  • I shopped at Target and Wegmans. Some things really are cheaper at Wegmans, and simply not available at Target.
  • Spices, seasonings, and other pantry staples are luxuries I take for granted
  • Meats that I thought would be OK because I could make them last for 5 meals still didn’t fit the budget
  • Sometimes I had to buy things that were not the greatest value (for example, chili seasoning pack for 99 cents instead of separate seasonings that would last longer)

Tips If You’re On A Budget

  • Planning in advance is extremely helpful.
  • If you have more than one grocery store in your area, do some price comparisons. Everyone is always surprised when mention my spreadsheet of Wegmans prices (for the essentials, not the “fancy” stuff) vs. other stores in the area.
  • If you can afford it, try to pick up one item each grocery trip that will help build a baseline pantry. This will help in the long run because you’ll be able to begin using more and more things you have on hand. (I’m developing a checklist, which I’ll link here when I’m finished.)
  • Know what items you can use for multiple things (for example, a whole chicken for $6 can yield a couple of dinners, chicken for chicken salad, and chicken stock).
  • Be careful of the “cost per unit” price comparisons on store labels. For example, canned kidney beans were labeled as 67 cents per pound, and the dry ones $1.49 per pound. But this does not take into account that 1 pound of dried kidney beans will yield about 2 lbs 7oz of cooked (source: Serious Eats). So really, the dried beans were about 61 cents per pound when considering how much the package would actually produce.
  • Choose your battles on getting the best value vs. saving money now. Even though it might be cheaper per unit to buy the 12-pack of whatever item, this may not be feasible to do for everything.

What Did I Buy?

  • Whole chicken
  • Ground beef
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Onions
  • Green beans (frozen)
  • Black beans (dried)
  • Kidney beans (dried)
  • Canned crushed tomatoes
  • White bread
  • Peanut butter
  • Butter
  • Brown sugar
  • Eggs (half dozen)
  • Goya seasoning
  • Chili seasoning packet

Total = $32.19, which leaves a little room for me to stop for a $1 coffee during the work week. I made my initial donation for the difference between what I spent (plus the coffees I’m going to buy) and my weekly grocery budget.

The Whole Story

I knew grocery shopping was going to be hard, but I underestimated how hard it would be. There were some items that I picked up (for example, a whole chicken) that I knew would last and I could get a lot out of. My confidence quickly faded after choosing the chicken. It also took me about twice as long to shop than normal because it was hard to think about how I was going to make everything last the week. I definitely made some poor choices along the way, which resulted in backtracking and putting items back.

low budget challenge lesson 1Baseline Pantry – Yikes!

One of the biggest realizations I had during my shopping trip was how fortunate I am to have a well-stocked pantry and fridge, and that I take this for granted. Things like flour, butter, olive oil, herbs, and spices are not something I have to think about. So how could I make this $38 stretch and get some items that would give my meals some flavor? I have plenty of seasonings at home, but I’m not going to cheat and use those. The only things I’m going to use that I already have are salt, pepper, flour, and sugar. I looked for seasoning blends that I could use for multiple things. I chose Goya’s Sazonador Total. I’m going to use the one I already have at home, but I included the cost in my calculations as if I bought it. After deciding I was going to make chili (see next paragraph), I needed a seasoning for that. Normally I season my chili with chili powder ($1), cumin ($3), paprika ($3), and cayenne ($4, or $1 if I bought red pepper flakes and ground them myself). My $38 budget couldn’t afford all of those, so while it’s not the best value, I opted for a 99 cent package of chili seasoning mix.

Meat is Expensive!

One of the poor choices I made, and had to put back, was a half sirloin (confession: it was also grass fed and organic – what was I thinking?!) I was going to get the sirloin strips that I normally use for beef stew, but at $17 there was no way that was happening. I thought spending $11 on a half sirloin that I could cut into cubes would be OK because I was planning to make beef stew to last the week – but even considering that being one meal over at least 5 days, it wasn’t going to work. I changed directions and decided to go for ground beef for chili. I lucked out because I found a very small package of it.

Morning Coffee

This was a tough one. I have a Keurig, so I was limited to k-cups (cheapest I could find was $4.49 for a pack of 12). I drink milk in my coffee, which was $1.69 for a half gallon. So $6.18 total, and each cup of coffee would be about 52 cents when considering the cost of the k-cups and the milk. However, this is one of those things where I considered opting out of morning coffee a few days out of the week and stopping by McDonalds for a $1 coffee. If I just had coffee 3 days per week, the total cost would be $3.18. If I stopped each work day, it would be $5.30. So I’m going with the McDonalds plan. This is one of those things where it would be a better value to get the coffee and milk and make at home, especially because I would’ve gotten 2 weeks out of the coffee. I could also use the link for mashed potatoes. But similar to the chili seasoning situation, I decided to go for overall lower cost here instead of value. I think this is an important point to recognize. Certainly it would be great if we could all buy the best value every time because it saves money in the long run, but the unfortunate reality is that not everyone can afford to spend more in the short term to yield long term savings.

Low-Budget Food Challenge

Last night on the way home from work, I stopped by Target and the pet food store to pick up a few things. I had to stop because my dogs completely ran out of food that morning. There was a family outside of Target with a sign indicating they were struggling to feed their family. There I was, worrying about my dogs being out of their almost $70 bag of dog food, and this family was struggling to feed their kids. Of course some will argue that they were just looking for money for other things, need to work harder, get jobs, or whatever. Regardless of one’s assumptions about someone who is asking for assistance, food security is a real concern. 4.9 percent (6.1 million) of U.S. households had very low food security at some time during 2016 (source: USDA Economic Research Service).  The USDA defines very low food security as a household in which “normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”

The problem with the argument that one just need to find employment or work harder to find a better job is that there are always going to be jobs that pay more than others, and there are numerous jobs that we depend on people to perform that do not pay much. Please don’t interpret this to mean I support a system where everyone earns the same, or that I think people deserve to earn less than a living wage (neither statement is true). I’m just pointing this out to say the hunger problem is not as simple as “get a job” or “work harder.”

So back to my Target and pet food store excursion. I went into the Target, picked up what I needed, and got a bag of groceries for the family outside. After I gave the family the groceries, I started thinking about my own grocery budget, which I have to admit is high for one person. I decided to try a low-budget food challenge. According to the USDA’s Cost of Food Report (October 2017), I would be spending $38 per week for a “thrifty plan” market basket. The Cost of Food Report is based on the Thrifty Food Plan, and adjusts the costs to current dollars using the Consumer Price Index. According to its abstract, the Thrifty Food Plan, “provides a representative healthful and minimal cost meal plan that shows how a nutritious diet may be achieved with limited resources.”

The purpose of the SNAP Challenge people were doing a few years ago seemed to be primarily to build awareness. That’s great, and I’m glad people did it, but I don’t want to build awareness, and then just go back to my regular lifestyle without doing anything else. I don’t feel like that’s very impactful, nor is it respectful to those who struggle with hunger on a regular basis.

This week, I’m going to try to get by entirely on a $38 food budget (the amount from the “thrifty plan” in the USDA’s Cost of Food Report referenced above). I’m going to donate the difference between the $38 and my normal food budget to Feeding America. If I cheat, I’m going to add $5 to the donation amount (each time). I’ll blog what I buy, and I’ll show the nutritional value of what I eat each day. I’m considering this to be a starting point, and will be looking for other ways to make a difference.

Glass Rolling Pin Wall Display

Hanging a Glass Rolling Pin

I love vintage and antique kitchen items. My aunt sent me my great grandmother’s glass rolling pin around Christmas last year. This particular rolling pin was made between 1929-1941. The end piece comes off so that the rolling pin can be filled with ice to keep dough cold while it’s being rolled.

I’d been wanting to display it in my kitchen, but I had no idea how. I tried placing it on shelves, but I didn’t want it to roll. I tried placing it on a shelf with a lip, but it looked weird. I knew I needed to figure out a way to mount it on the wall. There were some rolling pin racks online, but a lot of them were designed for rolling pins that were narrower on the side.

I set out to Home Depot (which has felt like my second home lately) with the rolling pin, praying I wouldn’t somehow drop it on the floor while I was there. I went to the general hardware section and looked for various hooks. Nothing was the right size. I knew there had to be something. I finally found these brackets* for mounting a stair railing that seemed like they would work. (Link marked with * is an affiliate link, which means I receive compensation for purchases made using the link)

Here is how I hung it:

  • Decided where I wanted it to hang on the wall and measured the placement of the left bracket (based on a measurement of the hole from where I wanted the left side of the rolling pin to sit).
  • Installed a drywall anchor, mainly to make sure that it would stay extra tight. I did not use the hardware that came with the bracket because I couldn’t get a tight enough fit when I tried using it – the bracket was rotating. With an anchor and different screw, I was able to get it to fight tightly to the wall.
  • Set the rolling pin down on the counter against the the wall and placed the brackets against it where they needed to sit, then measured the distance between center of the holes in the brackets.
  • Used a laser level and tape measure to find the placement of the hole for the second bracket, and installed another drywall anchor. (Confession: I broke the first drywall anchor, so I had to start over and re-position the first anchor. Now I have a couple of holes to fill. Oops.)
  • Hung both brackets, then added the rolling pin. I checked it one more time with a regular level and wiggled it a little bit to make sure I was happy with how snug the fit was.

Shrimp & Grits with Andouille Sausage

Shrimp & Grits with Andouille Sausage

I grew up in Charleston, SC, so I’ve definitely eaten a lot of shrimp and grits. When I moved to Philadelphia, I couldn’t find any restaurants with good grits. Seriously, they were always watery and flavorless. Yuck. Bad grits everywhere meant that I was more likely to win the lottery than find good shrimp and grits at a restaurant. That meant I needed to learn how to make them or buy a plane ticket home every time I had a craving. Now I have a lot of variations of shrimp and grits that I make. Sometimes I add peppers or tomatoes, and I like to use stone ground grits when I have more time. Definitely know what kind of grits you’re working with before you start cooking. Stone ground take a lot longer than quick cook, and friends don’t let friends use instant grits.

Recipe makes 2 servings.

Ingredients

For the grits

  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • ⅓ cup heavy cream
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp white pepper
  • ⅓ cup quick cook grits
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
  • ½ cup cheddar cheese

For the sauce & shrimp

  • 4 pieces bacon, diced
  • 1-2 pieces of andouille sausage, cut into half moons
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1½ tsp flour
  • ½ lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • ⅓ cup heavy cream
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cajun seasoning

Instructions

For the sauce & shrimp

Preheat a saute pan over medium heat. Add the bacon, onions, and sausage. Cook until the bacon starts to get crispy, stirring occasionally. (Make sure to start the grits a few minutes into this.)

Move the bacon, sausage, and onions to the back of the saute pan. Tilt the pan to get all of the bacon and sausage fat to come down onto one side. Add the flour and stir into the bacon and sausage fat. Once it makes a nice paste, move the onions, sausage, and bacon back and stir. Add the shrimp and fully cook them. Add the heavy cream to the pan, stirring the whole time, and scraping the bits of brown from the bottom of the pan. Stir in salt and cajun seasoning. Serve over grits.

For the grits

Add the chicken stock, heavy cream, salt, and white pepper to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the grits, reduce the heat to low, and cook for about 10 minutes, whisking frequently. Turn off the heat. Add butter and cheddar, and stir until well-incorporated into the grits. Put a lid on the saucepan and let the grits rest for at least 5 minutes.

Sausage & Apple Stuffing

Sausage & Apple Stuffing

I didn’t host Thanksgiving this year, which is one of my favorite things. This was the first year in a really long time I haven’t hosted, but I’m glad I was still able to make some contributions to dinner. (Thanks Annie & Dave for having me – I had a great time!)

I brought stuffing and honey yeast rolls with brown sugar honey butter. I used some of my vintage Pyrex dishes to make the stuffing, and Le Creuset stoneware  pie dishes* for the rolls. I made everything at home and transported it a half hour to dinner, which meant an interesting packing job with rubber bands to hold the Pyrex lids on and a selection of dish towels and oven mitts to make sure nothing broke during the car ride.  The stuffing came out great. I cooked it almost all the way at my house and finished it in the oven when I arrived.

(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links [marked with *], which means I receive compensation for purchases made using the links.)

Ingredients

  • 1 small bunch of celery
  • 3 honeycrisp apples
  • 2 small-medium onions
  • 3 large mild Italian sausage patties
  • 1 tsp sage
  • 1 tsp rosemary
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp white pepper
  • 1 qt chicken stock
  • 16-18 cups hard cubed bread (you want it to be almost crouton-like)
  • Butter (for greasing casserole dish)

I used dried herbs, so you will want to adjust proportions if you’re using fresh.

Instructions

Set aside bread cubes into one or two large mixing bowls.

Preheat a large (or possibly two) saute pan over medium heat. I used my Le Creuset 5qt braiser* and it was the perfect size.

Prep onions, apples, and celery and set aside together:

  • Onions – small dice
  • Celery – leaves removed, medium dice
  • Apples – peeled and cored, small dice

Add sausage patties to the pan, breaking up the pieces as it cooks. Cook all the way through until the sausage starts to brown. Add onions, apples, and celery to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are translucent and the apples start to get soft.

Mix with bread cubes in mixing bowl(s) using a spatula or wooden spoon. Add sage, rosemary, thyme, white pepper, and salt, and mix well. Transfer into one or more greased casserole dishes. Add chicken stock. You want the bread to be a little wet, but not too wet.

Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes until the top is crispy and the rest seems to be dry-ish (just push down on it and see if it still seems wet or not). Watch and make sure the top doesn’t start to burn. If it does, put the lid of the casserole dish on, or cover with aluminum foil. I cooked mine uncovered and it was fine.

Troubleshooting

If after about 20 minutes it still seems too mushy/wet, put another cup or two of the dried bread in a mixing bowl. Carefully dump or transfer the stuffing from the casserole dish to the bowl, mix, transfer back to the casserole dish, and resume cooking.

Prep Tip

IMG_7044Set everything out to prepare for all of your chopping. Have two bowls handy – one for the things you’re chopping, and the other for all of the scrap pieces (onion peels, apple cores, etc.) Then you can just toss all of the scraps once at the end.

Parmesan Panko Tortellini Appetizer

Parmesan Panko Tortellini.png

I was getting together with some friends yesterday, and was trying to figure out what to bring. I really like fried ravioli and kind of had a craving. Fried food doesn’t transport well, and I didn’t want to smell like fried food either. I had tortellini in the refrigerator, and thought I might be able to do something baked. They turned out great, and there weren’t any left over. In hindsight, I should’ve made more!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links (marked wth *), which means I receive compensation for purchases made using the links.

Ingredients

9oz package cheese tortellini
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
2/3 cup grated parmesan
4 tsp Italian seasoning (I used Tastefully Simple* Italian Garlic Seasoning)
2 eggs
Sauce for dipping (I used Tastefully Simple* Garlic Parmesan Wing Sauce)

Instructions

Cook the ravioli according to the package instructions. Cool over ice for a few minutes, then place the ravioli on a paper towel to get rid of excess water.

Beat two eggs and set aside. Combine breadcrumbs, parmesan, and Italian seasoning in a bowl.

Line two sheet pans with a silicone baking mat or parchment. Coat tortellini with the egg wash, then the breadcrumb mixture, one at a time. Place on on the baking sheet.

Bake at 350° for about 15 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs become golden brown. Transfer to a plate and serve with dipping sauce.

20 Uses for Tastefully Simple Bacon Pepper Jam

20 Uses for bacon pepper jamI don’t remember when I first tried the bacon pepper jam, but it was before I even started doing Tastefully Simple. I was hooked and decided I needed to have this on hand at all times. It’s only available seasonally, so I stocked up on several jars before the end of last year’s fall/winter season. I just told my wife it’s back for the current fall/winter season, and she was very excited.

There are so many things you can make with it. Here are some ideas:

  • Deviled eggs
  • Use on crostini with…
  • Top baked potatoes
  • Mix into mashed potatoes
  • Burgers (on top or mix in)
  • Grilled cheese (use a few white cheeses or brie)
  • Spread on bread for BLT or other sandwich
  • Bloody mary
  • Jalapeno poppers
  • Flatbread (Tastefully Simple recipe)
  • Make a dip with cream cheese and swiss
  • Topping for chicken or pork
  • Combine with mayo to make a dipping sauce
  • Glaze for party meatballs
  • Stir fry (add toward the end)
  • Baked beans
  • Glaze for grilled shrimp

Need to buy some? Visit my Tastefully Simple page! (Disclosure: I receive compensation for purchases made using this link.)

Great Aunt Corrine’s Fudge

Fudge

I used to love eating this as a kid. I took it to school as birthday treats instead of cupcakes many times. It’s not as soft as traditional fudge, but so delicious! As my mom says, it’s a tricky recipe, but so worth it. I had to call mom part of the way through to make sure I was doing it right. It turned out almost like I remember. I poured it too late (disaster photo at the bottom), which created some texture challenges, but it still tasted great.

This was also my first time using the candy thermometer I purchased from Pampered Chef. I’m really happy with my purchase!

Ingredients

2 cups sugar
½ cup cocoa powder
1 cup milk
3 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla.

Instructions 

Mix sugar, cocoa, and milk over medium heat until blended and sugar is dissolved. Add butter.

Heat and stir until candy thermometer reads 236. This will take a while and it’ll be bubbling.

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Let cool slightly while beating with a spoon until fudge begins to lose its gloss. (These were her instructions, but I waited too long to pour mine and it didn’t spread like it should have. I thought I should’ve poured it a few times, but waited because it still had all of its gloss. Oops! I’ll have to watch it closer next time and see if I can find a better indicator than “begins to lose its gloss.”)

Pour immediately onto a buttered platter and spread it out. (Note: I poured mine onto a platter with parchment and it worked well.) Cut into pieces when cooled.

IMG_6119

What happened because I poured it too late. I was still able to salvage most of it into actual rectangular pieces, somehow!