Category: Household Management

3 week meal prep

From SharePoint to slow-cooking… this blog is certainly a mishmash of topics!

I just attempted my first three-week menu-planning one-day-prep-cooking and I’ve survived! Menu-planning is a personal thing to me – even though there’s tons of plans out there, I always want to tweak them with things that our family will actually eat. But hey, I’ll throw this out there, in case you find some of the recipes and techniques helpful.

Here’s what I’ve got:

The menu

Week 1: (slightly more intensive cooking because it’s a holiday week!)

  • Sunday – shopping and prep day! Good day for takeout!
  • Monday – Slow cooker ham, mashed cauliflower, sautéed spinach
  • Tuesday – Stuffed cabbage rolls, cauliflower “rice,” rice (for kids)
  • Wednesday – pasties
  • Thursday (Thanksgiving potluck) – pretzel bites
  • Friday (Thanksgiving potluck) – pumpkin pie, Texas roadhouse rolls
  • Saturday – leftovers

Week 2: (back to work… quick dinners and slow-cooker meals!)

  • Sunday (potluck) – Arkansas green beans
  • Monday – Korean beef over cauliflower “rice” (with regular rice for kids)
  • Tuesday – Toasted sesame ginger salmon, bok choy
  • Wednesday – Slow cooker white bean soup with ham, fresh salad
  • Thursday – Slow cooker pulled pork, Hawaiian rolls, fresh salad
  • Friday – leftovers
  • Saturday – dinner with friends

Week 3: (even more slow-cooker and already-prepped meals!)

  • Sunday: Slow cooker Hawaiian style short ribs, steamed broccoli, cauliflower “rice”, rice (for kids)
  • Monday: leftovers or eat out
  • Tuesday: Slow cooker balsamic chicken with veggies, “cauliflower” rice (with regular rice for kids)
  • Wednesday: Pasties
  • Thursday: Slow cooker red lentil coconut soup
  • Friday: Slow cooker beef and tomato stew
  • Saturday: leftovers

(Extra in the freezer: Slow cooker kalua pork, several servings of broccoli)

Keep going past the jump for full shopping list and plan… as well as some tips on how to make your own menu plan.

Continue reading “3 week meal prep”

DIY Dry Erase Household Chores Checklist

I’ve long been a fan of homemade DIY whiteboards. Any picture frame or mirror or other glass surface works great as a dry-erase surface. This morning, I put together a “chore” chart in Adobe Illustrator, printed it out, slapped it in a frame that had been collecting dust in the garage, wrapped a dry-erase pen in ribbon and tied it to the back of the frame, put some nails in the wall, and now feel motivated to conquer some household grime and clutter!

My chore chart has sections for daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly chores. (Don’t judge — I realize some people do what we count as “annual” chores every month or every week!) I put a block to write in a due date and checkboxes for marking off the chores. I also included things that aren’t really “chores” but that we want to make sure get done — for example, a weekly date night and monthly dates with our children. I’m not sure if we’ll really need the “every day” box yet, but I figure for now it will be helpful to know if Steve has already done something before I do it as well.

Download

I’ve included the Illustrator file (CS4) if you’d like to download it and modify it for your own use.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Smart Strip

Smart StripI’m excited because I recently received my Smart Strip and plugged it in. My Smart Strip is a tan color, not the white that the product pictures show, but it works just fine!

The basic concept is that you can use the Smart Strip for one main appliance and related peripherals. Common uses would be for your computer/printer/drives/etc. or a home entertainment center. When the one main item is powered off, all the other peripherals have the power shut off to them as well, so you avoid electricity drain and save money! (The Smart Strip does include three plugs that are “always on” for things that you don’t want to be powered off — those are the red plugs.)

I first read about the Smart Strip at The Simple Dollar and finally tried to get one when we moved. Our local Office Max staff looked at me blankly when I asked about it, so I ended up ordering mine off of Amazon. Of course, a few days later, I saw them available at Ace Hardware along with other “green” products! Go figure.

More efficient moving tips

Less than seven months after our last move, we’ve moved again, this time into our own home!

We had one 17′ U-haul truck and three pickup trucks. The U-haul truck got crammed full, the other trucks just had a few things in them that were awkward (such as our bikes). We packed the trucks in 1 hour and 15 minutes and unloaded in 30 minutes; since this was an in-town move, it took about 5 minutes to go from one house to the other!

In addition to following last time’s moving tips, we did a few more things that made this move even more organized:

  • Boxed as much as we could. Last time we mostly used banker’s boxes, which are easy to stack and carry but don’t fit larger things very well. This time we used banker’s boxes and larger cardboard boxes so we were able to box up almost everything we owned. This mean less loose stuff for our helpers to deal with.
  • Printed out floor plans. I had measured the new place and measured our furniture and put together some floor plans for each room of where I thought the furniture could go. I printed these out and taped them on the doors or walls so that our helpers could see where to put the furniture. Here’s a sample of my living room floor plan:

    Sample floor plan

  • Had “jobs” for other helpers. I didn’t really plan this, but we did have some helpers that weren’t as able to lift things but were still willing to help; we also had some people who were willing to stay after everything was moved in and help. I happened to already be prepared with some things I wanted to get done, such as lining the kitchen shelves or putting together furniture. I was able to assign these to our non-moving-boxes helpers; it ended up being a huge help as being eight/nine months pregnant makes it difficult to do some of the putting-together-heavy-furniture tasks!

The past several days have been long days of unpacking and shopping. I’ve done some fun organizing projects which I’ll talk about in later posts!

Unusual uses for ziploc bags

I came across another unusual use* for zip-top plastic bags and thought I’d start a post to collect other ideas. Here goes!

1. Frugal heating system

Fill gallon-sized bag with rice. Heat in microwave for 1-2 minutes. Enjoy the heat.

2. Organize tea bags

Cut a piece of cardstock that is about the same size as a quart-sized bag and slide into the bag to help keep it “stiff.” Pull tea bags out of their box and put into the bag. Cut off box cover, if desired, and tape onto the cardstock. You can now “file” your tea bags in a basket or on a shelf. (You can even try matching the box cover with the card stock color!)

Organized tea bags

Organized tea bags

3. Finance organizer

And now for the final unusual use. This is a photo from my friend, Rebecca Wendlandt, who is an award-winning fashion designer-slash-mild-mannered custom clothing designer and seamstress. She keeps her business receipts in individual bags for each month which are then safety-pinned and hung from a hanger. The hangers are then organized by year in her closet. Very appropriate for a clothing designer, I thought!

Finance organization

Any other unusual uses you’d like to share?

* Unusual use: For the purposes of this post, I’ll define “unusual use” as “non-food-storage use.”

Freezer shortcuts

The freezer can be a great tool for saving time in the kitchen or for saving money… or both! I like to buy in bulk and also pre-prep some foods, store it in the freezer, and pull things out when I need them. Here are some of the things I like to do:

Meat freezer tricks

  • Buy ground meat in bulk. Split it up into smaller packets, wrapped in plastic wrap or butcher paper, label, and freeze. You can use a food scale (or a postal scale, which is what I do!) to get 1/2 lb. or 1 lb. packets — all ready for a recipe!
  • Same thing works when you see any kind of bulk meat or meat on sale: Buy a lot of meat all at once, split it up into recipe-sized portions, and freeze. I do this with large fillets of salmon, for example.
  • Buy whole chickens (which are usually cheaper than individual parts). If the butcher can’t cut it up for you, it’s actually kind of fun to do it yourself! I usually de-skin and de-bone the breasts as I’m cutting up the rest of the chicken, and use a cleaver to chop up the back into smaller pieces to use for homemade chicken broth. Divide the parts into different plastic bags (or butcher paper) according to what you might usually use them for. For example, I’ll wrap the chicken breasts individually, put the wings, thighs, and legs together, and take all the excess skin, fat, bone, and chopped-up pieces of back into a big Ziploc bag for homemade chicken broth. Everything gets labeled and stored in the freezer, ready for dinner later on.
  • If you like bacon occasionally or if you like to buy bacon in bulk, try this trick: Pull out two slices of bacon at a time and roll them up together. Put the bacon rolls side-by-side in a freezer bag (it’s okay if the rolled sides touch each other) and freeze. It’s very easy to break apart the bacon rolls and pull out as much bacon as you want to have in the morning or to use it in a recipe.

Produce freezer tricks

  • Chopped green onions are a staple in my kitchen — I use them in soups, fried rice, in omelets, and more. So, instead of buying a bunch of green onions, using one or two stalks for a meal, and letting the rest rot in the fridge, I wash, dry (with a paper towel), and chop all the onions at once and throw them in a freezer bag. The frozen onions are great with cooked foods; however, they tend to look a bit wilted if you try to use them “fresh” (as a garnish or topping, for example)
  • I do the same thing with parsley and celery, which I am rarely able to use all at once. Chop them up and freeze them, and they’re great for adding to cooked foods later on!
  • We have a friend with a very productive lemon tree. I took part of an afternoon to juice the multiple bags of lemons that she gave us (an electric juicer would have been handy, but I used a normal hand-held juicer) and poured the lemon juice into ice cube trays. The lemon juice was a bit more difficult to pop out of the trays (I had to use a butter knife to encourage some of the cubes to come out), but once they did, I was able to put them all in a freezer bag. You can do this with any home-squeezed juice — lime, orange, etc. I’ve also frozen the base for blackberry limeade (blackberries and water) when I bought a ton of blackberries on sale, although in a ziplock bag, not in ice cube trays.
  • Although this isn’t produce-specific, ice cube trays work nicely for freezing small portions of homemade pesto, broth, or any sauce or liquid!

Other freezer tricks

  • I usually only need a tablespoon or two of tomato paste. When I open a new can of tomato paste, I use the can opener to open up both sides of the can. Pushing against one of the metal discs, I slide the tomato paste out onto a sheet of plastic wrap, then discard the can top/bottom. When I need tomato paste, I just eyeball the frozen chunk and use a knife to cut off the approximate amount that I need.
  • I have to admit that I don’t like the heels of loaves of bread. We used to just let them sit and collect in the cupboard until they molded. Now, I’ll tear them up into chunks and pulse them in my food processor to make fresh breadcrumbs. I store the breadcrumbs in the freezer and use them in recipes. (Actually, the freezer is a great place to temporarily store those leftover slices of bread so that you can make a big batch of breadcrumbs all at once! Just make sure that they thaw before trying to pulse in the food processor.)
  • The food processor is also a great tool for making your own shredded cheese. Buying a big block of cheese is sometimes more cost-efficient than buying pre-shredded cheese. I’ll often shred the cheese myself and then freeze portions of it in Ziploc bags which I can pull out and thaw as I need them.
  • Another cheese trick — Steve loves provolone cheese, which I’ll buy in bulk at Costco. I divide the provolone into packets of 5 slices (one for each weekday) and freeze. On Sunday, I can pull out one of my packets and thaw it in the fridge to use in Steve’s lunch sandwiches that week.
  • After making homemade chicken broth (usually about 2 qts. worth from the back pieces, leftover skin, fat, and bones of one chicken), I’ll pour two or four-cups of broth into Ziplock freezer bags, seal them up, and store in the freezer for later.
  • We have a local company that makes these wonderful fresh flour tortillas, but because there are no preservatives, they go bad faster than we can eat them. I’ve started layering the tortillas with waxed paper and freezing the stack of tortillas, which allows me to pull them out easily one at a time, defrost quickly in the microwave (15-20 seconds at high), and use for a quick quesadilla.
  • After making Chinese steamed pork buns, which we love — but can only eat so many for a few days in a row, I’ll let them cool and then freeze them in a plastic freezer bag. I can then pull out one or two at a time and microwave them to eat for a quick snack or meal.
  • Finally, when Steve and I make a huge batch of potstickers/dumplings (note to self: will have to post recipe at some point), we’ll lay them out on cookie sheets (before cooking them) and freeze them, then transfer them into a Ziplock bag for storage. We then have lunch or dinner all ready to go; I like to either boil them or fry-steam them in a skillet, which you should do straight from the freezer so that they don’t thaw and stick together.

What freezer tricks do you have up your sleeve? Please share in the comments!

Month-long food expense tracking

I mentioned earlier in December that I was in the middle of a month-long food expense tracking experiment and had so far been able to see first-hand how much money you can save by cooking meals instead of eating out. I kept Very Detailed Spreadsheets of exactly what we were spending money on for food (including eating out and individual grocery items like “three onions”) and how much money each meal cost. The purpose of this experiment: To see how our grocery budget was impacted by purchasing mostly organic and/or locally-produced food.

The month is over, I’ve tallied up the numbers, and here are the results:

  • Grocery costs: $298.11
    • Includes at  least $235.55 spent on organic/locally-produced foods
    • Does not include items that were already in the pantry or freezer
    • Does not include food purchased for Christmas gifts (we made potstickers for friends, for example)
    • Includes money spent on food that was used to feed other people — potlucks, Christmas brunch, inviting friends over for dinner, etc.
    • January – November 2007 11-month average of monthly grocery costs: $322.12 – $24.01 less than average
  • Eating-out costs: $102.13
    • I don’t have an 11-month average of eating out costs because my budget tracking lumps all “fun” activities into one category, including eating out. However, I’d guess that this is a typical amount.

I was initially surprised that we spent less on groceries on average. Purchasing conventional, non-organic foods seems cheaper, after all:

  • Organic milk is more than twice as much as conventional milk, and we’ve been buying more milk than usual because I’ve been having to drink a certain amount for my glucose-intolerant diet.
  • The free-range eggs we buy at the Farmer’s Market are twice as much as normal eggs on sale, which is what we used to get.
  • Organic cheese is also significantly more expensive.

But performing some additional analysis helps to bring this into perspective so that it makes sense:

  • We purchased and ate less meat overall. Usually I buy meat in bulk and freeze it, and we usually would have meat for dinner every day. However, the sticker shock of free-range and/or organic meats meant that I ended up purchasing and cooking far less meat than we usually would eat. This in itself probably saved us a lot of money.
  • We obtained in-season produce at the Farmer’s Market. My old method of menu planning was to pick out recipes that sounded yummy, generate a shopping list, and pick everything up from the store. This month, I found myself making a loose menu plan but revising it as I saw what produce was available at the Farmer’s Market, sometimes even building a menu plan on the fly while walking the stalls. Some of the produce was very cheap — for example, I got 50-cent heads of cabbage several times which made Very Cheap Potluck side dishes and could be used in stir fry, fried rice, soup, and more. In contrast, my former method of menu planning involved purchasing lots of out-of-season foods, most of which were probably imported and/or processed and therefore more expensive.
  • We were more aware of our money. Tracking every penny spent on food helped to motivate me to really make the most of the produce I bought. I’m guilty of buying produce, using a tiny bit in a recipe, and letting the rest rot in the fridge. Because I was keeping track of the food I bought and how much was used in each recipe, I found myself becoming creative with leftover bits of produce and using every bit up. For example, a remaining half of a bell pepper got sliced up with some onions into an egg scramble for a few breakfasts, as did leftover cabbage. I think we only ended up with one moldy orange, one rotten apple, half a bunch of cilantro, and a few leaves of lettuce that had to be thrown out!

If you’re curious about the gory details of the food expense tracking and cost of meals, I’ve published the Google Doc workbook here: 12/1/2007 Food expense. Here are a few notes of explanation:

  • The first spreadsheet, “Expenses,” has the breakdown of all the money spent on food in December.
    • For simplicity, I tallied only foods purchased at the Farmer’s Market and our local food co-op as “organic/locally-produced.” The actual amount spent on organic foods is probably higher because I think some of the things we bought from Safeway and Costco were also organic.
    • I categorized items as “groceries” for general grocery items that we’d eat throughout the day that would be hard to keep track of, “meals” for grocery items that I could keep track of by meal, “fun” for eating out, and “gifts” for items that were used to make Christmas presents. “Gifts” were not included in my grocery total.
  • The second spreadsheet, “Food,” shows the food we ate each day and the cost per meal.
    • The actual cost column only includes the cost of groceries bought that month. I did make notes in the last column if I used food from the pantry or freezer and if I knew approximately how much it was.
    • I calculated the cost to make an actual dish, so if there were leftovers on subsequent days, I didn’t calculate the cost for those days. However, you can get a sense of how many servings each dish provided — and I started putting numbers to indicate how many servings were served that day.

So in conclusion, while I never want to keep such detailed track of food expenses ever again, I think this was a very valuable experiment. It’s one thing to read or hear from someone else about how eating out is more expensive and another thing to personally calculate the cost yourself and compare the numbers. It was also encouraging to see that we aren’t spending any more on groceries (and perhaps even less) by purchasing “more expensive” organic, locally-produced foods. Given the health, environmental, and sociological benefits of doing so, we’re going to continue along this path!

Appendix: Related blog posts

These blog posts relate to the topic of organic, local, sustainable food and the cost of food:

The cost of eating out vs. making meals

The Simple Dollar did a couple cost-comparison (and time-comparison, too!) studies a little while ago about making hamburgers at home vs. purchasing them at a fast-food place. While I’ve always generally “known” that making my own food is cheaper than eating out, I’ve never really bothered to break down the numbers.

One of my friends, curious about our organic-and-local food attempts, asked how our grocery budget was faring near the end of last month. While I had general numbers for our grocery budget, I really had no concept of what percentage was represented by organic, locally-produced foods. As an experiment, I’ve been trying to keep Very Detailed Track of the food we buy and what I use it for in December.

As I seem to love spreadsheets as much as I love lists, I made a workbook with two spreadsheets:

  • Expense tracker: This breaks down every penny that we spend on food this month. I note the date, the specific item purchased, the category, the cost, and where it was purchased.
    • Categories break down into “fun” (which is shorthand for “eating out”), “meals” (items that I can track to specific meals that I make), and “groceries” (general items like milk and snacks that I can’t keep track of as well).
    • Example of a line from the spreadsheet:
      • Date: 12/3/2007
      • Item: Daikon radishes for soup
      • Category: Meals
      • Cost: $1.00
      • Where: Farmer’s Market (i.e., local and usually organic)
  • Food tracker: This lists the food that I use for each meal and calculates the cost of the meal. I note the date, which meal, what I made, the cost (hand-calculated, usually), and another column for notes.
    • Example of a line of data from the spreadsheet:
      • Date: 12/3/2007
      • Meal: D(inner)
      • What: Asian-style chicken soup with oyster mushrooms, daikon radish, cabbage, served with rice.
      • Cost: $2.88
      • Notes: $1 from radishes (local/organic), $0.10 of cabbage (1/5th of a 50-cent head, local/organic), $1.78 from oyster mushrooms. The chicken was bought in November ($15.07; local/free-range) so doesn’t count towards the meal cost for this month; I used about $5 worth for the soup, using the thighs/legs and wings. (Actual cost $7.88) Rice was purchased a long time ago and would count in regular grocery money anyway so I’m not keeping track of it.

(Keeping track of this is enough work that I doubt I will continue after this month, but I’m motivated enough by curiosity for now to keep going!)

After just 12 days of keeping up these detailed spreadsheets, I was really surprised by how cheap it is to cook your own meals, even when trying to purchase organic, locally-produced foods. That $7.88 batch of chicken soup that I made was good for 7 individual servings, or about $1.13 per serving. And that’s with expensive free-range chicken that costs about 3 times as much as “conventional” chickens!

Here are some other examples of super-cheap meals that I’ve made so far this month:

  • Indian Curry Tuna and Indian-Spiced Cabbage, served with rice
    $2.08 total = 3 servings, or $0.69/serving
    $0.30 for another 3/5 of the head of cabbage, $1.78 for a can of tuna. Spices and rice not included in cost.
  • Homemade pizza – one with pineapple and ham, the other with chicken, spinach, and bell pepper
    $5.09 total = 4 servings, or $1.27/serving
    $1.43 accounts for half a can of organic pineapple, $0.79 for a partial bunch of local/organic spinach, $0.37 for the quarter of local/organic bell pepper used, and $2.50 for the chicken. Ingredients for tomato sauce and crust were already in the pantry and not included in the cost.
  • Chickpea, potato, and spinach soup
    $4.98 total = 5 large servings, or $0.99/serving
    $0.75 for the rest of the bunch of spinach, $1.09 for a can of garbanzo beans from local distributor, $1.00 potato (local/organic), $1.89 for premade organic free-range chicken broth. Seasonings/spices not included in cost.

In contrast, here are some samples of times that we’ve eaten out this month:

  • Dinner at local Thai restaurant – two appetizers, main dish, rice, Thai iced tea (Steve), hot tea (Corrie)
    $35.49 including tip = 4 servings, or $8.87/serving
    We ate the appetizers and drinks the first night, but had enough main dish leftovers for two smallish lunch servings.
  • Breakfast at local crepe restaurant – shared one large crepe which came with side of potatoes
    $8.74 including tip = 2 servings, or $4.37/serving
    We were still a little hungry afterwards and ate more after running errands and going home.
  • Pizza and mocha freeze from Costco
    $5.58 = 2 servings, or $2.79/serving
    Steve had the mocha freeze, I had water; we shared the two “slices” of pizza.

Even the “cheap” food at Costco is twice as much as one of the meals I’ve made at home (which are far healthier, with the added benefit of using organic and locally-produced ingredients).

So far, our three categories are about even (“fun,” “grocery,” “meal”), if you don’t include the large case of soda that we got from Costco ($20!). Our grocery category includes organic milk, which is expensive compared to conventional milk, fruit, cheese for snacking, sandwich rolls, and other hard-to-track items like cereal and butter. Surprisingly, so far we haven’t been spending any more than we used to spend on groceries when purchasing conventional, “cheap” food.

I may update with another post at the end of the month after looking at the final numbers. For now, I’m definitely motivated to continue to enjoy cooking meals at home after seeing the price tags! We do have a “fun” budget which gets spent mostly on eating out — which we usually exceed — so this has been a good motivator to stay within our fun budget and instead have fun with the challenge of making foods that are nutritious and cost-effective.

Christmas traditions

I find it interesting to hear about other people’s holiday traditions. Maybe you do, too, so the rest of the post is about what Steve and I do when Christmas approaches!

Annual Christmas Ornament

One thing we’ve done every year (albeit unintentionally at first) is to pick out an ornament that represents the past year.

2002 ornament 2002 – “Our first Christmas together”
This was a wedding gift that we received. It stayed packed for our first Christmas together because we didn’t have a Christmas tree that year, but it did spark the idea of getting an ornament each year.

2003 ornament 2003
We got a Christmas tree ornament to commemorate our first Christmas tree together. It took a while to find an ornament of a Christmas tree; the 2003 Hallmark Veggie Tales ornament would have been perfect because it was of Larry the Cucumber dressed up like a tree, but every store was out by the time we got around to looking for an ornament. We ended up finding this 2002 Hallmark edition ornament for half-price instead!

2004 ornament 2004
This adorable sheep holds a cake that says “Happy Birthday, Jesus” and, with its other hoof, a present labeled “To My Shepherd” behind it. This had been a year where we felt that God had really been leading us, so the sheep/shepherd imagery and sense of gratitude was very appropriate.

2005 ornament 2005
After a change of direction, we thought a compass was appropriate to symbolize the new directions we were looking at in 2005. We picked up this compass from a sporting goods shop.

2006 ornament 2006
We went to Monterey several times in 2006, so got together this very non-traditional ornament of a stuffed sea otter wound through a Monterey Bay Aquarium keychain. A bit ghetto, but it represented a lot of the good times that we’d had that year.

2007 ornament 2007
Our friends gave us this ornament after they found out I was pregnant. The Veggie Tales ornament says “Peas On Earth,” but they had labeled the three peas on top with “Steve,” “Corrie,” and “Little Haffly.” The ornament was so cute and appropriate that Steve and I decided that it would be our official 2007 ornament!

Getting a tree

This started out as our good friends’ tradition and we joined in and adopted it for ourselves! A local Christmas tree farm has both pre-cut and cut-your-own trees. We go there with a group of friends to get a tree, help ourselves to free popcorn and apple cider, and ride on a “sleigh” on wheels pulled by a tractor decorated to look like moving reindeer. It’s very fun to hunt for the perfect tree and to watch our friends hunt for their trees.

This year, we splurged with our housemates and got a pre-cut tree. I finally got around to taking pictures! We kept our ball ornaments wrapped up this year and used our housemates’, but both put out our special ornaments. The rose petals around the tree skirt are my specialty as are the little stuffed monkeys at the top of the tree.

Christmas tree

Monkeys in the treeMonkeys in the tree

Lacking a “real” tree topper our first year of having a Christmas tree, we took our smallest monkeys and put them at the top of the tree. The slightly bigger white monkey doesn’t always make it, but the two baby monkeys have been on every tree since then.

Nativity Set

Nativity set Nativity set

We started a new tradition this year! We haven’t had a nativity scene before because I’ve been very picky about finding one that I like. I found this little set made out of polymer clay, but the thing we like about it is that it comes with a card that prompts you on how to set up something every day. There are twenty pieces, so some days you do things like making a road to Bethlehem (Steve and I colored a piece of paper) or putting out “hay” for the donkey. I think the little pieces are adorable.

Sleeping by the tree

One thing we did for the first time last year was to drag a mattress out by the tree and sleep by the tree. Then, we have our own little Christmas morning ritual of exchanging presents with each other. Our housemates will be out of town so we can do it again this year. I forsee us falling asleep by a nice cozy fire, as well!

What unusual or special traditions do you have during the holiday season?

Frugal heating system

Our house is older, not well insulated, and has big windows. We haven’t turned on the heat yet, so it’s quite cold in the mornings and evenings. As I work, I usually have a big mug of hot tea to help warm me up. But hot tea only stays hot for a limited time, and I can only drink so much of it!

We do have a space heater, and although I haven’t worked out the numbers, I think that running it all morning, every day, would defeat the frugalness of having the house heater off in the first place.

Yesterday, I filled a gallon-sized ziplock bag half-full of white rice (I get rice in large quantities so it’s pretty cheap) and microwaved it for two minutes. Then I sat with it in my lap. Ahhhhh.

The rice was so hot, I had to move it around. It became a nice soothing back pillow for a little while.

I was warm for the rest of the morning.