Blog Update

For quite some time I have been feeling the not-so-gentle-nudge to do something about this blog, Life in the Van.  I cover such a broad range of topics from faith to family to food, and in the blogosphere, that is no good.

Those of you who are interested in reading more about topics related to faith and family may not necessarily be interested in my recipe posts.  Conversely, those of you looking for new recipes may not be interested in hearing about my thoughts on matters of faith and family.

So, this past week, I fixed that.  I have a new blog up and running called The Gluten Free Gathering.  Here, I will be posting only gluten free recipes and other food related topics.

Life in the Van will remain the place where I share what the Lord has laid upon my heart.  I will be sharing matters of faith, lessons, and family topics as I always have.  If there are any cooking contest adventures, I’ll share those as well.  But soon you will begin to see all of those yummy recipes disappear from Life in the Van.  They will find a new home at The Gluten Free Gathering.

So, you have some choices:

Thanks to all of you who have followed and supported me in my writing venture.  It’s something that I truly love to do.

The $20 Challenge: Never Too Young!

With the first two rounds of The $20 Challenge completed and recorded as successes, my youngest son of ten years old, stepped up for his turn in the ring. He had planned his menu weeks in advance. He couldn’t wait to create his favorite meal: cheeseburgers and potato salad. I had approached my son two weeks ago and asked him if he was ready to head to the store with me to shop for his meal. An interesting exchange began. He had compiled a list, something I always applaud. I gave his list a quick look over and determined that he had forgotten to include cheese.

“I don’t need to buy cheese; we have some in the fridge.”

I explained to him that, yes, we did indeed have cheese, but the whole point of this exercise was to purchase all of the ingredients himself.

“But it’s already here; it would be a waste to buy more.”

I offered up to sell him the cheese in the fridge. I would simply deduct the amount from his $20.00.

“That’s not fair!”

This exchange continued and promptly ended when I reminded him, once again, how the challenge works. I explained that I thought it would be best if we tried this again in a few weeks. I can’t say that he was terribly happy with my decision.

Waiting would prove to be a good thing. When approached yesterday about taking the challenge, my son was completely ready. He understood what he needed to do. He informed me that he had changed his menu and wanted to make meatball sub sandwiches and a salad. Fine with me. He again prepared his list and was ready to go. We arrived at the store and as we were walking to the entrance, I glanced over at my son. With pen and notepad in hand, he approached the store with a bit of a swagger. Now normally an over confident swagger is frowned upon, but today it made me smile. Here was the little guy in the family with $20, a list, and the responsibility for feeding his family, and he was all in. He loved it. He had been entrusted with this task. He was told that he wasn’t too young to pull this off. He walked a bit taller.

I explained to my son that we should begin our shopping by picking up the most expensive items first. So, we headed off to the meat department. He picked up two packages of ground turkey for just about $8.00. Next, we needed mozzarella cheese. I was impressed that he noticed that the larger package was actually cheaper than the smaller package due to a sale. Now we were off to buy tomato sauce. He noticed a jar on sale for $0.99. I had to stop him here and explain that a cheaper price is not always the way to go. I knew for a fact that the brand he had selected was, well, kind of nasty. I just was not willing to eat that sauce for dinner. Jarred sauce is not my favorite ingredient to begin with; we’re a bit spoiled because I tend to make my own. I showed him an acceptable option that was priced at $1.99. Into the cart it went. We quickly picked up some Italian bread on our way to our final department, produce.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the most impressive part of this shopping trip. My son, with his notepad and pen, was recording the price of each ingredient he put into the basket. I hadn’t told him to do this. He told me that he wanted to keep track of what he was spending. Gold star, pat-on-the-back, A+…give him what you want (I chose to give him a big hug), but this was awesome! I’m telling you, kids will step up when you give them responsibility.

As we were milling around the produce section, my son had a hard time accepting the fact that lettuce was not cheap. We finally settled on a head of iceberg lettuce, an item my children have never seen me buy. I always opt for a more nutritious variety of lettuce, but iceberg was what worked in his budget, so I turned a blind eye. He also picked up a bag of carrots, three plum tomatoes, and a cucumber. As he was looking through the cucumbers, he turned to me disgusted because they were all soft and wrinkly. A worker overheard our conversation and told him that she had a fresh box of cucumbers he could choose from. How nice! On a bit of a side note, the produce department is a great place to work on mental math skills with your kids. So many items are priced as a group like 3/$2.50 or 2/$5.00, allowing kids to divide mentally. Most everything else is priced by the pound, leaving kids to weigh and compute a price on their own.

Once we had filled our cart with all the needed ingredients, my son completed his calculations. He was over budget by roughly a dollar. I offered him two options: put something back or purchase the cheaper jar of sauce. He acknowledged that I had said that the sauce was “gross” and was not willing to make that switch. He opted to forgo the tomatoes. I told him that there was bit of extra red pepper from lunch that he could include in his salad…free of charge! With that, we headed to the cashier to check out. His total came to $19.68. Now that was a successful shopping trip.

Once home, we began to cook. My son often helps in the kitchen and has a high degree of comfort there. However, he told me he was not looking forward to one part of the meal: sticking his hands into raw meat to make the meatballs. I was a bit surprised by this because he’s a boy and has never really been shy about making a mess! Well, once he got his hands in the mix, he was just fine! Into the oven the meatballs went. He then turned his attention to shredding cheese, chopping lettuce, and slicing carrots, cucumbers, and peppers. He was doing great! In short time, dinner was ready and on the table. Everyone agreed that dinner was delicious. My oldest son commented how delicious the salad was because of the addition of iceberg lettuce, noting that mom never buys that “stuff”.

As we were enjoying our meal, we discussed who was up next for our $20 Challenge. We asked Dad if he would like to try. Let’s just say that we will need to work on him a bit. I suggested that I may take the $20 Challenge to show the kids how far you can really stretch a buck. So, next up? Mom. Let’s see what I can do with $20. I think the kids will be shocked!

Basil, Beans, and a Buck Too Much: The $20 Challenge

teens

With one round of our family’s $20 Cooking Challenge in the books, we sought out our next recruit.  My eldest son stood up and took the challenge.  My oldest son is very organized and to his testament has proven himself to be quite wise with his finances, albeit his limited finances.

In preparation for our trip to the store, my son had prepared a detailed shopping list.  Very good.  Lists are helpful.  They keep us on track.  He knew exactly what he would prepare: chicken, basil, and mozzarella panini  sandwiches with white bean dip and fresh vegetables.  Although not on his list, he was holding out hope that somehow he would be able to manage to sneak dessert in there.  I was not so optimistic about dessert becoming a reality.  With $20 in hand and my wallet at home…yes, I decided I would leave my wallet home…we set out for the grocery store.

First up, bread.  Normally, I purchase a round loaf of Italian bread from a local bakery.  Unbeknownst to my son, I typically make that purchase directly from the bakery, with a coupon, making it half the price of what he was about to see at the supermarket.   He picked up the familiar loaf, looked at the price tag, glanced at me, and said, “$4.50?  Really?”  Into the basket it went.

Next on the list, chicken.  This was going to be expensive.  Chicken was not on sale, and I knew that he would need at least three chicken breasts for his meal.  We scoured through the packages priced between $9.00 and $12.00 and quickly determined that chicken breasts were going to break the bank.  I pointed out other options.  In addition, I told my son that he could change his menu around, taking into consideration some meat options that were on sale.  Nope.  Chicken panini sandwiches were going to happen…somehow.  We finally decided on a hefty package of chicken tenders that was within his price range.

We scooped up a smaller than anticipated block of mozzarella along with two cans of white beans.

“Are you sure you need two cans of beans?  They’re inexpensive, but will you really need that much dip?”

My son responded, “Yes, we really like the dip and the beans are cheap.  One extra can of beans won’t be a big deal.”

Maybe. Maybe not….

Our last stop was the produce section.  I don’t normally purchase much produce from the grocery store.  The majority of our fruits and vegetables come courtesy of a local co-op group, so I knew that my son would really be taken back by the price tags in this aisle.   To boot, it’s February in the Northeast.  Produce prices are at their highest and selection is at its lowest.   He rounded up a bag of mini carrots, a red pepper, a cucumber, and a package of grape tomatoes.  I stopped him and encouraged him to add up the items in his basket.  After weighing the pepper and determining its cost to be roughly $2.00, my son’s total calculation came in over $25, and he had not even picked up basil yet.

“Mom, do you have any extra money on you?”

“Why, as a matter of fact I don’t;  I seemed to have left my wallet at home,” I replied.

With head lowered and eyebrow raised, he asked, “Now what?”

“You can change the menu, trim it down, or make substitutions,” I said.

Well, substitutions would become the word of the day because, again, we were going to have those panini sandwiches tonight one way or another.   So back to the bread aisle we went to discover that two thin baguettes would be $1.50 cheaper than his original loaf.  Score.  We exchanged the original package of chicken for a slightly smaller one.   Back in the produce section, we put back the pepper, exchanged the bagged mini carrots for full sized carrots that were cheaper, and then turned out attention to the basil.  It was $3.29.  Ouch!  I told him that he could probably get away with using dried basil instead, and that would be under a buck. “No way” was the response I received.  I knew that my son would only need about half of the package of basil for his meal.

“If I had my wallet with me, I would offer to purchase half of your basil.  I could use it at another meal.”

Quick thinking as my son is, he responded, “You have money in the van.”

“Where?”

“In the cup holder.  I saw a few quarters.  I’ll be right back.”

I stood there waiting and watching the produce manager pass me yet again, likely wondering what in the world was going on…I had been there a long time.  My son returned with five quarters.  We picked up the basil and did a little happy dance knowing that now we were slightly under budget (courtesy of my basil offer).  We made our way to the cashier but decided to take one more look at the chicken to see if we could save a bit more.  I kid you not, as we were looking at the chicken, I heard the familiar sound of coins hitting, what I thought, was the floor.  I turned to my son who informed me that two of the quarters fell into the front grate of the meat freezer…into the abyss…gone for good.

No way!  What to do?  Laugh, that’s what you do.  With that I told my son that he needed to have a plan in the event that we didn’t have enough money to pay.  He decided that he would put back the second can of beans if we were over budget.

As we waited in line, I leaned over to my son and asked, “Can you buy me a package of candy?”

“Mom!”

When all was said and done, the bill came to $20.13.  With my purchase of half of the basil, my son would come in under budget.

I was exhausted.  In the time it takes me to do an entire food shop, we shopped for one meal.  But what fun the two of us had.  My son learned the art of finding suitable substitutions.  He actually did a fantastic job making his plan work.  On our drive home he asked me if I always spend twenty dollars on our dinners.  I told him that I typically spend less.  I also told him that I tend to shop the sales.  Normally, I never would have purchased chicken that week because of the price.

Making good choices is important, not just at the food store but clear across the board in life.  Even though my son was determined to make his panini sandwiches, he may have needed to change his plan.  There are too many people walking around who have the mentality that “I am going to get what I want, no matter what”.   I told him that we can’t just walk through life determined to get what we want, when we want it, regardless of the price.  Sometimes the price is big…and I am not referring to the price tag at the store.

Who knew there would be so many practical lessons and discussions that would ensue from this little experiment.

As for dinner, the “panini” sandwiches were delicious (but were no longer paninis due to the bread exchange).  The dip was spot on and the veggies just right.  Again, I enjoyed a wonderful time shopping, preparing, and cooking alongside my son.