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  • My School Lunch Strategy

    Tomorrow is the first day of school, and I am feeling a lot better about it than I did last year, when I really didn’t know what I was in for. Packing my son’s snack and lunch is still a big consideration for me, though.

    One thing I learned last year is that my son doesn’t care for the school’s offerings. He’ll gladly eat the breakfast cereal and coffee cake, but has an intense dislike of the other options, including the pizza, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese and so on. I can’t complain, as I like to think he’s got a discerning palate thanks to the food he enjoys at home. The flip side, of course, is that I have to pack him lunch every day.

    This year, I know to pack a small snack because he has only 20 minutes to scarf something down, use the bathroom, and play. And his biggest priority on that list is going to be play, while his teacher’s biggest priority will be the bathroom visit. So my biggest priority – the snack – will have to be something quick and desirable, like an applesauce pouch or cookie. I’m anxious for the weather to cool down so I can do some baking.

    Unfortunately, my son rarely ate any lunch-type things I packed last year – he didn’t like the sandwiches, hot foods were untouched, and no matter how much I experimented, he just didn’t want to eat much. Apparently this is actually normal for some kids.

    So I’m resigned to packing something that looks more like a substantial snack than a lunch. My standbys are cereal-type bars (yay for the Kashi deal at CVS this week!), crackers (especially pre-packaged ones with peanut butter for the protein), single-serve cartons of organic milk, and fruit puree pouches. I serve him a fairly substantial lunch-like snack after school to make up for his lack of “real” food at school, and he eats a good dinner. The fact that he’s healthy and a healthy weight makes it easier for me to accept this regimen, although my acceptance was a long time coming.

    Did I mention I’m looking forward to cooler weather? I’m looking forward to experimenting with little finger foods that I can pack for him that are healthier than what I just described – and that’s as much for me as for him. :)

    Tips for saving on only one grocery store trip per week

    Back when I was working outside of the home full-time, I still made more than one trip to the grocery store, mostly because I shop at multiple stores to get the best deals at each store. But that doesn’t work for everyone, so here are some tips for saving money while making only grocery store trip each week:

    1. Start with a good stockpile. You may need to shop at several stores for a few weeks or months, or simply going to Target or Costco to stock your pantry, but starting with a well-stocked pantry will make Tip #2 easier.
    2. Decide on which store to shop at depending on that week’s sales. If you already have a stockpile of staples, then you can go to Ralphs for the produce and meat deals and not have to pay $3 for a box of pasta. (If you don’t have a stockpile, don’t want to go out of your way to start one, and don’t want to pay full price for that box of pasta, explore the store and tinker with your weekly menu to come up with inexpensive meals based on what’s on sale.)
    3. Know which store has the lowest price on things you eat that don’t go on sale. For example, I would hit Trader Joe’s once a month to stock up on things that I can stockpile but don’t usually find cheaper than TJ’s every day low price. For example, they have organic American cheese at $3.49, which I can’t find at Ralphs or Vons, and which is more expensive at Whole Foods.
    4. Be willing to pass up some good deals. This is actually a key to maintaining your sanity and preventing burnout under any circumstances. (I’ve discussed it before in the context of The Drugstore Game.)
    5. Be willing to adapt your menu to what’s available. Plan on planning your menu and your shopping list after you see what’s on sale that week, and you should keep your eyes open as you go through the store and spot the unadvertised specials.
    6. Be willing to pay a (small) premium for your mental health. If hitting multiple grocery stores stresses you out, don’t do it! Even if it means you have pay a little extra for food each week. Unless your family is watching every penny out of sheer necessity, in which case hitting multiple stores is probably necessary and therefore less stressful anyway, your mental health is worth a few extra dollars.

    Works for Me: Freezing Bread

    My parents always froze bread when I was growing up, so I’ve always done it too. But the other day, my friend K. mentioned that she kept having to throw out stale bread and buy a fresh loaf for her son’s school sandwiches. And I realized that not everybody freezes bread to keep it fresh. But it really works.

    I’ve found that store bought sliced bread usually freezes great and it’s easy to peel off just one or two slices at a time.

    My homemade sliced bread seems to be more delicate, and I find that I have to freeze it with the slices staggered in order to guarantee easy removal. As you can see in the photo, I just slide the staggered slices into a zip top freezer bag. They never last long enough to suffer freezer burn (I make a loaf every one to two weeks, depending on how many sandwiches we eat).

    K. was worried that the bread would be frozen and/or soggy when her son went to eat his sandwich. But I assured her that bread defrosts very quickly, and would be thawed enough for her to cut the sandwich by the time she was done making his sandwich. Using an oil-based condiment such as mayonnaise (me) or butter (K.) prevents the bread from becoming soggy.

    Find more Works for Me Wednesday Tips at We Are THAT Family.

    Slow Cooker Steel Cut Oatmeal (not a recipe yet)

    We’re big fans of the steel cut oatmeal at Jamba Juice, but I’ve been convinced that I can make it at home. I did my research and found some threads that said the cooked oatmeal can be frozen in individual portions. So I used Frugal Upstate’s recipe as a launching point. It’s got great texture, but I want to work on the flavors and especially the additions. Also, the timing is waaaay off. Maybe Jenn’s slow cooker is older than mine, but my oatmeal doesn’t take more than six hours, tops. I could never do it overnight.

    So I have two tips for the time being: (1) experiment with cooking times and keep an eye on your slow cooker; and (2) if the oatmeal is sticking to the sides of the crock, stick the whole crock in the fridge – it will come off the sides much easier when it’s cold.

    I’m going to keep working on a recipe I’m proud to post, but in the meantime, I would love to hear your suggestions on what toppings to use. So far, we’ve used brown sugar, raisins, dried cherries, dried cranberries, bananas, and nut-free homemade granola (not my personal favorite, but I can’t have nuts in the house for allergy reasons). Thanks!

    Buying Quality Food: Beyond certifications

    Last year, I read this article by Russ Parsons, a food writer for the LA Times. The idea that just because a food doesn’t have the “organic” label doesn’t mean it was grown with chemicals, hormones and/or antibiotics was novel to me, but gradually over the last year, it’s taken hold in me.

    I’ve discovered that especially at farmer’s markets, a lot of the produce that’s not certified organic is still grown without chemical fertilizer and pesticides. The farmer I’ve been buying strawberries from for the past few weeks said that he uses garlic and ladybugs to protect his crop. (And I found a tiny ladybug in the last batch of strawberries that I bought.)

    When I first started shopping regularly at farmer’s markets, my initial impression was that the produce was more expensive than the supermarket. But compared to the price of organic produce, it’s actually cheaper. So I’ve been buying almost all of my produce at the farmer’s market for the last month or so.

    And I love it.

    The strawberries don’t last as long. They’re super ripe when I buy them, so they’re extra sweet but they need to be eaten quickly. Which is not a problem with the boys and me around. I pay $5 for 3 full pints, a little less than the price of $2.69 for 16 ounces of not-so-sweet organic strawberries at Trader Joe’s.

    Occasionally, supermarkets will have small avocados on sale for 50 cents, but the usual sale price is 99 cents or $1. Well, the regular price at the farmer’s market is $1, and they keep for two or three times as long.

    Peaches grown organically but without the official certification are just $2 per pound, a price that’s comparable to Trader Joe’s if memory serves. Even if they’re a bit more expensive, the higher quality and the fact that I’m supporting a local farmer make them worthwhile.

    This article at Mark Bittman’s blog suggests that I’m on the right track. The article mentions some pig farmers who aren’t interested in obtaining the organic certification in part because it would double the price of their pork. But the lack of certification doesn’t mean their product isn’t high quality.

    It’s important to me to feed my family – especially my children – organic or at least hormone and antibiotic-free dairy, meat and produce. But now I know not to be so hung up on labels.