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  • 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.

    Preparing for Kindergarten Part One: Lunches

    I have no idea how many parts this series will be, and I certainly have no concrete plans for when posts will go up. But I do know that preparing for kindergarten is always on my mind – it’s our biggest milestone yet, and so I’m more than a little anxious about it. (My son, on the other hand, is quite blasé about it – of course.)

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about is lunch. I know public school lunches are cheap, but I’d rather pack my children their own lunch, with higher quality ingredients.

    I pack lunch for preschool every day, so the actual act of packing isn’t a big deal at all. I’m more concerned about what will go in it, because with preschool, I have the option of putting in food that needs to be warmed up. I won’t have that option when the boys are in kindergarten.

    Fortunately, in the last month or so, both boys have started eating cold cuts. So cold cut sandwiches are now an option that I am grateful to have. I would have loved the PB&J option, but we don’t keep any nut products in the house because of food allergies. I’ve thought about buying Uncrustables when they’re on sale and keeping them in the freezer, but I have this fear that they’ll end up being given to the wrong child in an absentminded moment.

    I’ve got Price Protectr tracking the price of a Ms. Bento thermal lunch jar*for me (see Lunch in a Box for more info on thermal jars). I’m intrigued by these because they keep food warm, and it would be a way for me to pack pasta, pizza rolls or chicken nuggets for lunch.

    But that brings to another concern – whether little hands can open the containers I pack the food in. I have a variety of bento boxes that I currently use, but at preschool, the teachers transfer all of the food onto a paper plate, which the children must throw away when they are done. But starting in August, I plan to practice packing kindergarten-appropriate lunches and asking the teachers to serve them as is, without transferring the food to a paper plate. It’ll be a trial and error experiment to see which bento boxes work best for us as we transition to a whole new phase of life.

    *affiliate link

    Afternoon Coffee: It’s Still Mega Swag Bucks Friday

    Search & WinSwag Bucks celebrated its second birthday yesterday with lots of Swag Codes, and I don’t think they were fully prepared for all of the traffic they got because the site went down quite a bit yesterday, at least early on. If you had trouble registering yesterday, it should be much easier today – and, the bonus code I posted yesterday is good through March 6. So if you sign up using my referral link, you’ll get 60 bonus Swag Bucks to get you started (and I’ll get bonus bucks too, so thank you!).

    One of the things they didn’t mention yesterday was whether Mega Swag Bucks Friday would continue – and it turns out it is! Swag Bucks promises to give out 400,000 Swag Bucks every Friday, up to 1,000 Swag Bucks per search.

    Amazon currently has the Motorola DROIDphone for just $49.99 with a Verizon Wireless plan. I’ve avoided getting a smart phone for a while now because I haven’t wanted to spend the money. But now I actually need a new phone because the camera on my current phone is dead and I keep missing opportunities to take cute photos of the boys. The data plan that goes with the DROID starts at $29.99 per month, so now I just have to decide if I’ll get my money’s worth out of $30 per month. At least the phone will be free with my Swag Bucks if I buy it through Amazon!

    I highly recommend this sardine and avocado sandwich recipe at Cheap Healthy Good. I know it sounds odd, but it’s a great combination. I made a few modifications, such as using olive oil and an orange champagne vinegar, and serving it on artisan bread, but any version of this would probably be delicious.

    Speaking of artisan bread, I’ve been making small loaves in my toaster oven – partly out of necessity because my oven died, but also because I’ve been trying to make only what we’ll eat that night unless I want leftovers. The funny thing is that the loaves come out in all kinds of funny shapes – I think it’s maybe because this week’s dough was on the wet side, but I think it’s also because of how little dough I’m using.

    And speaking of dough, making artisan bread every day has meant I’m using way more flour than I used to and I keep running out. I discovered that 5 pound bags of Gold Medal flour are on sale this week at Vons/Pavilions (Safeway for non-locals) for just $1.69 per bag. That’s the lowest price I’ve seen since the holiday baking season, and of course, I didn’t stock up that much then since I hadn’t started baking bread every day yet.

    Finally, a quick update on the oven situation: I’ve decided that I’m going to try to make do with my current toaster oven for a while, and see how it goes. Someone had recommended looking for the part we need, but honestly, the oven is so old that even if we could find it, I’d be really skeptical of it. I don’t think they’ve made ovens like this for decades at this point.

    The Benefits of Menu Planning: Save Money, Reduce Stress, Raise Healthy Children & More

    I seem to write this very same post once or twice a year, and it always follows the same pattern: Something causes me to stop planning my weekly dinner menu, and after a while I reach a point where I really want to save money. That means any kind of eating out really stresses me out, because cooking at home is so much cheaper, but then figuring out what to make for dinner really stresses me out, too. And that’s when I realize that I really need to get back on the wagon and start planning my menus again.

    In this case, the whole hospital crisis last month and its aftermath really shook up our routine. It was all about survival, and as Marc and I always do when there’s a crisis, we spent for survival. Which isn’t to say that we spent frivolously – rather, we made a conscious decision to spend money in order to reduce the stress of our situation. In this case, it meant a lot of spending on fast food, take out, and toys. Plus, we have all of those medical bills to pay.

    But it’s pretty much all behind us, and I have no excuse not to be menu planning now.

    So to help motivate myself (and maybe you too), here’s a list of the tremendous benefits of menu planning:

    Reduce the temptation to just grab fast food or takeout. It’s easy enough to plan my menu so that on those days when I arrive home from work after a long day, dinner is something that takes less than 30 minutes to get on the table.

    More time. Because I can plan for quick and easy meals, I can spend less time in the kitchen, and more time on other things (like blogging!).

    Save money on lunch by taking leftovers. Leftovers make a great brown-bag lunch, but there usually aren’t any if we’re picking up fast food or sandwiches on the way home. And since lunch is usually at least $5 each, we’re talking big savings here.

    Reduce the stress of deciding what to make for dinner. Normally this doesn’t stress me out so much, but it’s increased since I really want to make food that’s inexpensive and makes enough for leftovers. If I’m planning ahead, I can plan for leftovers. Leftovers = less stress.

    Waste less food. When I don’t plan ahead, I inevitably end up buying food that I don’t use before it goes bad. That’s bad for our bottom line, and bad for the environment too.

    Eat healthier. It’s no surprise that we eat much healthier when I’m cooking than when we’re picking up food on the way home. My family – including me – deserves to eat healthy.

    More variety. Without a plan, I tend to fall back on the same meals over and over again. But when I’m thinking ahead, I can pull out new recipes, or old favorites that I’ve forgotten about.

    The kids are more adventurous. This goes hand in hand with the last point – when I’m regularly serving new dishes, the kids get used to it and are more willing to try new foods. It’s so exciting to watch their palates develop and their sense of adventurousness come alive.

    Be a better mother. After the last point, I had to say it – it’s awesome motivation! :D

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    My best grocery shopping trip ever: How I got $130 worth of groceries for FREE & how you can do the same

    As you might have seen over on Twitter yesterday, I got $130 worth of groceries for FREE at Ralphs. It’s the perfect transaction to help illustrate in practical terms what I explained more abstractly in my post on how to start using coupons, so I’m going to break it down in detail. (Sorry there aren’t any pictures – I’d put everything away before I realized I should have taken a photo!)

    I did my transaction at Ralphs, which has some great deals this week. For non-local readers, Ralphs is the Kroger chain out here in Southern California. Based on what I’ve read in the coupon forums, we get the same promotions as other Kroger stores, but at higher prices.

    If I’d paid full price for everything, my total would have been $129.11. However, almost everything I bought was on sale, and I had a lot of coupons and discounts so in the end, I didn’t pay a penny out of pocket. Here’s how you can do the same:

    1. The very first thing you’ll need to do is sign up for a Ralphs Rewards card if you haven’t already. Pretty much every major grocery store chain has a store club card that gets you lower prices when it’s scanned. They do track your purchases, so if you’re particularly protective of your privacy, this method of saving is not for you. However, you don’t have to disclose that much information when you get your card – you don’t even have to give an address, although that will limit your savings.

    In addition to getting sale prices, your Ralphs Rewards card earns points on each purchase – 1 point per dollar spent. Each quarter, you’ll get a check based on your points ($1 per 100 points). You have to have a minimum of 500 points to receive a check, and they’ll carry over to the next quarter if you don’t reach the threshold, but each cycle runs the calendar year (i.e., any points you have left on 12/31 vanish).

    2. Make a list. When you’re new to couponing, this is the part that takes a lot of time. It’s just a skill that you’ll develop with practice, and if you’re committed to spending less and saving money, then you’re just going to have to be patient with yourself. I took the list of deals that I wrote up earlier this week, the weekly ad circular, and my coupons, and made my shopping list based on all of that information.

    This week, Ralphs is having their Mega Savings Event, where you get $5 off when you buy any 10 qualifying items. You can do multiples of 10 in a single transaction, i.e., I bought 20 qualifying items and got $10 off. (See below for my MSE transactions.)

    I get the majority of my coupons from the newspaper (specifically, the LA Times). My mother-in-law is not a big couponer, so I usually have two copies of every newspaper coupon. Newspaper coupon inserts include Smart Source (SS), Red Plum (RP) and P&G Saver (P&G). Depending on how you organize your coupons, the date can be important. (See my previous post on getting started with coupons.)

    Another great source for coupons is All You magazine.Right now it’s $19.95 for 12 issues at Amazon. We’ve seen better prices, but this really is one magazine that pays for itself with the coupons you’ll find inside.

    And of course, you can print coupons. A great source is You’ll also see links to hot printable coupons on blogs like Chief Family Officer and Common Sense with Money, among many others.

    3. Take advantage of any store discounts that might be available to you. Ralphs sends me both paper coupons and electronic coupons. An electronic coupon is a discount that’s attached to your store rewards card. It’s automatically applied when you scan your rewards card at checkout if you’ve bought the appropriate items. Ralphs sends me emails with offers that I activate by clicking through from the email. If you’re comfortable using and possibly stacking electronic coupons (an issue we’ve discussed here and here), go to,, P&G eSaver, and and load them up.

    Ralphs Pharmacy takes competitor coupons, so before I went to the store, I loaded bonus rewards points onto my card for purchasing a frozen pizza and a half gallon of ice cream (50 bonus points each). I also transferred a prescription to their pharmacy because I had a coupon for it.

    4. Know the store’s coupon policy. Ralphs is pretty good about taking any coupon that scans. My biggest gripe is that they only double one like coupon per transaction, and only up to $1. You can find Ralphs’ official coupon policy in teeny tiny print at the bottom of the last page of the weekly circular.

    5. Go shopping with a calculator and bring your own bags. My first stop in the store was at the pharmacy, where I used a coupon for a $25 gift card with a transferred prescription that I got from last week’s Rite Aid circular. Instead of giving me a gift card, the pharmacist loaded a $25 credit to my Ralphs Rewards card.

    Then I went to pick up all of the items on my list. I had a $5 off $75 purchase coupon that I found in a local mailer called Clipper Magazine. It comes quarterly (I think) and always has this coupon in it. I only use it about twice a year, because I rarely reach the $75 minimum, which is after sale prices but before coupons. The prices at Ralphs, even after sales and coupons, are usually higher than what I’d pay elsewhere. But the lesson here is to always keep your eye out for coupons. You never know where you’ll find them.

    The 20 qualifying items on my list totaled $33.49 after the Mega Savings Event discounts. There were non-qualifying items that were good deals, and they added another $15.02 to my total. I also picked up some items that I prefer to get at Ralphs, i.e., Boar’s Head cold cuts – they’re our preferred brand because of taste and quality, and Ralphs is the most convenient place to get them. Those “necessities” added $14.89 to my total.

    All of the above items totaled $63.38, so to get to the $75 minimum so I could use the $5 off $75 purchase coupon, I used some free item coupons I had for refrigerated cookie dough, cereal, and ice cream. (Two of the three coupons were sent to me by giveaway sponsors. I received the third coupon as compensation for a product that had defective packaging.) After sale prices and store discounts, my total was $77.85. You can see why I recommend bringing a calculator (I use the calculator function on my cell phone) – there’s no way I would have been able to keep track of my total as I shopped without a calculator.

    I used $37.28 in paper coupons and $1 in electronic coupons. That brought my total down to $39.57. I paid the remainder using the $25 pharmacy credit and a gift card that I’d gotten from Kroger and MyBlogSpark for promoting last month’s Mega Savings Event (which turned out to be not nearly as good as this one). The end result was $130 worth of free groceries. Plus, I got 214 bonus points, which is an extra $2 on my quarterly Ralphs Rewards coupon. 25 of those bonus points were for bringing my own bags. Ralphs give you 5 points per bag, which is the number of points you get if you spend $5. It works out to a 5 cent credit toward your quarterly rewards check.

    Here’s a list of the deals I got, with the coupons I used, and the end total price that I paid:
    Mega Savings Event items (price reflects MSE savings of 50 cents per item):
    2 24-packs of Nestle bottled water – $3.50 + $1.20 CRV each; used 2 50-cents off coupons from 8/16 RP, one doubled; paid $3.45 each, which is a great price for a case of water considering $1.20 of that was CRV
    4 Kraft Easy Mac bowls – $1 each; paid $2 total after MSE (these are not my favorite things to serve but I have to confess I send them with the boys to preschool for lunch about once a month when I need something incredibly easy)
    2 boxes Jello – $1.49 each; used 50 cents/2 coupon from 7/26 SS, doubled; paid 98 cents for 2
    2 boxes Ritz crackers – $2.69 each; paid $4.38 (see below for coupon deal)
    1 Capri Sun – $1.49; paid 99 cents after MSE
    2 Philadelphia cream cheese – $2 each; used $1/2 coupon, not sure where it came from; paid $2 for 2
    2 boxes Nabisco Wheat Thins – $1.99 each; used 2 $1 printable coupons; paid 98 cents for 2
    3 Lean Cuisine entrees – $2 each; used $2/3 coupon from September All You; paid $2.50 for 3
    1 DiGiorno Pizza – $4.47; used $1 coupon (there are some in the 6/14, 8/16, or 8/23 SS); paid $2.97 & got 50 bonus reward points
    1 Breyers Half Gallon ice cream – $2.79; paid $2.29 after MSE & got 50 bonus reward points

    Other Coupon Deals:
    2 loaves Sara Lee bread – $4.19, Buy 1 Get 1 Free; used 2 55-cents coupons from 9/13 RP, one doubled; paid $2.64 for 2
    2 boxes Ritz Crackerfuls – $3.50 each; used 2 Buy Ritz Crackers, get Crackerfuls free coupons from 8/23 SS (the max value for the coupon is $3.49, so I paid 1 cent each for these)

    For more coupon match ups and non-coupon deals at Ralphs this week, go here.

    Are you still confused? Not to worry – I’ll be posting a “how to save on groceries” series that starts with the very basics this coming week.

    Previously: Contacting customer service for free coupons