Homemade Convenience

I am constantly trying to phase packaged convenience foods out of our home. Let me tell you it is HARD to do. The boys need snacks for school. Brad needs lunches for work. Sometimes I need something to munch that doesn’t require cooking or creating dishes to wash. Sometimes dinner time sneaks up on me and I haven’t given it the slightest bit of thought earlier in the day. Convenience foods are, well, convenient. So as I go about my journey to get the junk out of our diets, I’ve had some success in finding homemade versions of some of our favorites that have the benefits of not only being free from chemicals, preservatives, and excess packaging, but also much, much cheaper. Today I’m going to share with you 3 of our favorites: Fruit leather, cheese crackers, and mini fritattas.

Fruit Leather:
My boys love the apricot Stretch Island fruit leather. But at $1 a pop, those things are crazy expensive! We would get them occasionally as a treat in the checkout line at Whole Foods for being helpful shoppers. But now that I have an Excalibur Food Dehydrator, making our own is a snap. Since the boys love the apricot flavor, I start with dried apricots. You can use any type of fresh or dried fruit. If starting with fresh, just omit the soaking step.

Cover dried apricots in water, and leave to rehydrate for several hours. Cover the bowl so nasties don’t fall in.

Once the apricots are nice and juicy again, pour your apricots and a good bit of soaking water into your blender. I love my Blendtec , it makes short work of just about anything. Use just enough water to get things blending smoothly.

Next, spread apricot goop in a thin even layer on a piece of parchment paper on your dehydrator tray. The Excalibur comes with some teflex sheets, but I prefer the parchment paper because when it’s dry I can roll the whole thing up and cut into strips so the boys have fruit roll-ups.

This batch made four trays worth of fruit leather. I put it in the dehydrator at about 145* for around 6 hours. See how easily the fruit leather lifts off the parchment paper? It’s done when the thickest spots are dry to the touch.

Cheese Crackers:
These cheese crackers are the closest to Cheez-Its I’ve found. They are really yummy, and since I do the whole process in my food processor it’s super easy and they come together lickety split. I have made the recipe with whole wheat flour before and they turn out ok, but they really just taste better with white. Since these are a once in a while treat, it doesn’t bother me too much.

1/2 lb grated extra sharp cheddar
1/4 C butter, softened
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 C flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Cream together first 4 ingredients. Slowly add flour to make a stiff dough. It’s important to use sharp cheddar in these, even if it’s not the kind you like for eating. I like to use extra sharp. Otherwise the crackers don’t have a lot of cheese flavor. Also, you can decrease or omit the cayenne pepper if you think your kids won’t like it. With the full 1/8 tsp the crackers have a little bit of a kick. My kids don’t seem to mind, and I like it that way. 1/16 would probably be fine if you have kids with a picky palette. If you leave it out completely the crackers will be kind of bland, but hey, some kids like it that way.

Divide the dough int 3 portions and roll into logs. Wrap the logs in waxed paper and place in the fridge overnight, or the freezer for 1 hour. I’m always in a hurry so I always use the freezer method and it works great. The idea is just to get the dough chilled enough that you can slice it with out smushing it.

Slice thinly and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. These do not expand very much when baked so you can place them fairly close together, but not touching. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt.

Bake at 350* for about 12 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack. Once completely cool you can store them in a ziplock baggie or a glass jar. I really have no idea how long these keep, even if I make a double batch they are gone in less than a week.

Mini Fritattas:
Here’s my newest toy; a 24 ct mini muffin pan. Oh the possibilities! Today it was fritattas.

Bacon, spinach, cheese into every muffin cup. Then I mixed 6 eggs with 1/2 cup of cream, and topped off the fritattas. This made just enough egg mixture to do all 24, not a drop left over.

After 30 minutes in the oven at 350*, I had cheesey, bacon-y, egg-y goodness.
Yum! I meant to put half into the freezer for later, but for some reason they mysteriously disappeared before I got around to it.

Finding homemade versions of some of your favorite packaged foods is a great first step in the direction of phasing junk out of your diet and home. The kids love these snacks, and I feel good about feeding them something healthier than what comes out of a box. What are some of your favorite homemade convenience recipes?

Goals Revisited

It’s very easy to set goals at the beginning of the new year only to promptly get on with your life and never give them a second thought. That is until the next year, when you look back and realize that you changed nothing, and re make the same goals again. The first month of the year is over, and we are well on our way into 2009. I thought I’d take a moment to look at the goals I set up a meager month ago and see where I stand.

1) Live more mindfully
This is and always will be a constant struggle. But keeping it at the forefront of my mind helps me to evaluate decisions and stay present in the moment. I should really turn my computer off more often.

2)Eat more locally
Harder to implement until the farmers markets get going, but I did find local raw honey at Whole Foods for a good price, and I can get local Ohio eggs at my regular grocery store.

3)Maintain a successful container garden
I am planning two tomato plants, to snap pea plants, and one tub of potatoes. Possible a pot of herbs also. I’ll get tomato and herb starts from the farmers market this spring. Peas don’t like to be transplanted so I’ll start those from seed once the last frost date is past. I’ll order my potato starts probably from the Seed Savers Exchange.

4)Find a workable system for my recycling
This I have yet to even start on. However, I do have an idea. For some reason we have two trashcans in our bedroom, and we hardly ever use either one. I think there is room for the bigger one under the sink in the kitchen. This is important as there is absolutely NO room ANYWHERE in my kitchen for a single other thing, and several things that are there really don’t fit either. If I can manage to remember to put it into the car before loading up the kids for a grocery shop, we’re all set. It may even help me to remember my cloth bags too.

5)Move my body
Every little victory here counts. I did 3 yoga Sun Salutations today. I spent the first half of the month out of commission due to a nasty cold turned sinus infection. Now that I’m feeling human again it’s time to get moving!

Well a month in and I have not managed to fail miserably at any of my goals, and many of them are being actively pursued. I think regular check ins will keep me motivated, reminded, and accountable.

Dawn and Direction


It has long been a philosophy of mine to never have too many concrete plans, because nothing ever goes the way you plan it anyway. On the other hand, I feel you should always have some direction to your life, because without a direction, you can’t get anywhere. This is something that comes to the front of my mind as I’m sure it does for many as the new year turns over. I hate resolutions. Everyone brakes them by the time February is over anyway, so they seem rather pointless to me. I like the idea of setting goals, but I’ve always thought it was a cop-out to wait until Jan. 1 to set a new goal. Just start already! So I bring to you my New Years Direction. A combination of goals and wishes for my life and my family.

1) Live more mindfully.
To me, living mindfully means giving your actions purpose, and not just functioning on autopilot. It means making conscious decisions about what I do with my time, what I bring into my home, what I put into my body, the attitude I take with my children.

2) Eat more locally.
I don’t begin to pretend that we’ll give up buying bananas this year. It’s one of the only things resembling a plant that my three year old will eat. But I do want to make a point to shop locally when possible: farmers markets, local craftsmen, local family owned shops. This decreases the amount of transportation needed to get things from where they were made/grown to me, since they were made right here. I’d also like to try to purchase locally in bulk to put up for the winter, to decrease my reliance on foreign and Californian produce in the colder months.

3) Maintain a successful container garden.
Last summer the two tomato plants I started in pots by my front door died a tragic and untimely death due to lack of water or caring on my part. I don’t have visions of a huge vegetable garden in my small apartment landscaping, but I would like to coax a few plants to maturity and eat something that I grew.

4) Find a workable system for recycling.
My apartment community does not recycle. The truck does not pick up for us at all, so if I want to recycle I need to load it into the car and drop it off myself. The nearest place to drop off recyclables is behind the grocery store that I shop at weekly. This is about as convenient as it gets, which is nice. However, my kitchen is so small, I have yet to figure a place to store the recycling until drop off time that does not really cramp the flow of the kitchen. My other obstacle is remembering to put the recycling in the car before I leave for the grocery. Oh yeah, and to bring my cloth bags too.

5) Move my body.
Weather making time for yoga in the morning, taking the kids for a walk, or running with them in the park instead of sitting on my blanket, I want to try to find more ways to move my body while doing things we’re already doing.

A new year feels like a new dawn. A new chance. A time to reflect on the previous year, and make choices about the coming year. Watching the new year come in mindfully is like being up early and watching the sun come up. At first everything is dark and hazy, only a hint or a promise of what is yet to come. Before you see the sun, the sky lightens, and things around you begin to take shape. As the sun peaks over the horizon the world is illuminated and all possibilities are bright and crisp. You only have to look around, and decide what you want to do.

Thrift store adoration

I love thrift stores. Thrift shopping is one of my favorite things to do. And thankfully, the boys seem to enjoy it too. It doesn’t hurt that we usually cruise the toy section first so they each have something to hold and keep them entertained while I peruse the aisles. Thrift store shopping is like a game, or a treasure hunt. Discovering the diamond amongst the lumps of coal. For best results, go often. Inventory is turning over every day so there’s always something new. I’ve been on days were I toured the whole store and left empty handed, and I’ve gone on days where I filled my cart with treasures. It’s hit or miss, but it’s worth going often. My favorite thrift store has a half off day on the last Tuesday of every month, so I’m there at least monthly. I find like new items, new-with-tags clothing for the kids, and really cool vintage items on a regular basis.

In addition to finding cool stuff, it can’t be denied that thrift shopping is a very frugal endeavor. I buy about 99% of clothes for myself and the boys at thrift stores. I rarely spend over $1.99 for a shirt or pants. If you know what to look for you can often find designer clothes for pennies on the dollar. I routinely find Gymboree and Children’s Place for a dollar or so, and have even found boutique clothing like Hanna Anderson. In years that I don’t have the time or inspiration to make them, I can find great Halloween costumes there. And as I mentioned in Sweater: Deconstructed I never try clothes on at the store, but for $.50 I can afford to make a few mistakes. In general about 75% of what I bring home works really well for me.

I also look at items in the thrift store as raw material for crafting. I get wool sweaters and felt them for longies and diaper covers, I use vintage or jersey sheets for fabric to make clothing and hand bags, I refashion clothing items into something new and different. And if I find something that just doesn’t fit and isn’t worth my time to alter, it goes right back into the donation box and I take it back to the thrift store next time I go.

Thrift shopping is not only good for my personal pocket book though. It is environmentally friendly and good for the community as well. Buying used not only saves me money, but it keeps things out of the landfills, and it decreases the demand for new manufactured goods helping to limit factory emissions. When I declutter I have little time to take pictures and list things on craigslist or deal with a garage sale, so any usable items I’m getting rid of go to the thrift store. I probably could make a little money trying to sell some things, but it saves so much time and headache to donate, and I feel good about giving. A lot of thrift stores support charity causes, so the money I spend there goes back into the community. Proceeds from Good Will go toward education, training, and career services for people with disadvantages, such as welfare dependency, homelessness, and lack of education or work experience, as well as those with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Last year, local Good Wills collectively provided employment and training services to more than 1.1 million individuals. Salvation Army provides toys for kids at Christmas, coats for the homeless, food for the hungry, help for abused women and children, care for the elderly, and many other social services. Volunteers of America (my favorite thrift store here) provides services for children and families, developmental disabilities, elderly, emergency services, employment training, health care, homeless, housing, and much more. Be sure to check into the thrift stores in your area to see how they give back to the community.

Some of my best finds at thrift stores include a Thomas the Train play mat for my 3yo, a like new pressure cooker, some terrific clothes including an emerald green cotton/lambswool sweater and an 8 gore long skirt that fits perfectly and is very flattering, a spider costume for my 1yo for Halloween that was like new, some great vintage sheets, and every year I stock up on cookie tins for giving home made candy in.

If you’ve never stepped into a thrift store, I strongly encourage you to give it a try, you never know what you might find. And if you already shop at thrift stores you can feel good knowing that you are not only saving money, but are doing a good thing for the environment and the community.