There was an error in this gadget

Monday, January 18, 2010

How to Make Eating In More Like Eating Out

Spicing Up Eating In

I've been a SAHM for years, and as a result we've always eaten most of our meals at home. The chief difference between meals at home "Before" and meals at home now is we don't really have a choice now. It's really interesting how putting something out of reach makes it all the more desirable, too. Here are a couple of ideas to make eating in just as good an experience as it is for your wallet and waistline.

The first thing to ask yourself is "Why do I want to eat out anyway?" I know exactly why I want to eat out!

  • No shopping for food
  • No prepping food
  • No schlepping the food (to the dining room table and back to the sink)
  • No cleanup
  • Wait Staff!
  • Interaction with friends
  • Distractions for the kids
  • Variety in the dishes and in the meal (Appetizers! Bread Baskets! Desserts!)

Whew! That's a tall order for a dinner at home. Never fear, though, it can be achieved.

The Meal: There are a couple of things that you can't get away from: If you're going to eat a homemade meal at home, you're going to have to shop, prep, and schlep the food some. You can cut down on this step by planning to serve a meal you've prepared earlier in the day or earlier in the week. In fact, if you're a fan of Once A Month Cooking (freezer cooking), you may have prepped the meal a whole month ago. Using a slow cooker is another way to cut down some on the meal prep so you can focus on your day instead of on the stove.  I'll mention cooking circles later in this article as a way of adding variety to your meals.

Plate the Food in the Kitchen: Of course we're used to placing all the serving dishes on the table and passing them around, but chances are you have a pretty good idea how much everyone is going to take. Go ahead and plate the food before it leaves the kitchen. This will also result in less to clear away from the table after the meal.

Hire a Waiter: Kids love to role play, and giving them the role of waiter for a night may be all you need to give your tootsies a rest for the evening. If they're too young or if you'd like to keep the family gathered around the table for the meal, have a waiter's station set up near the dining room table. This can be a card table put up just for the night, or you can use the kitchen counter. At the waiter's station have a pitcher of water, extra napkins, silverware, and anything else that usually has you popping up and down like Jack in the Box during dinner.

A Table Full of Friends: It's true, it is easier to decide with friends to head for the nearest restaurant after the basketball game. Having said that, it's much more rewarding to have everyone over for dinner instead. There's no check to worry about splitting at the end of the meal, there's no fisheye from the waiter when you're lingering over dessert at the end of the evening. What this does take is planning. You can plan the entire meal in advance and set a date to get together, or if you issued an impromptu invitation you can stretch a meal by adding a quick soup or salad and more side dishes. Soups are really easy to make in bulk and freeze, and a bag of salad takes 5 minutes to grab at the grocery store on the way home.

Interaction or Distraction? One of the biggest benefits to having the whole family at the table is the relationships it builds, but sometimes after both of you have been at home all day long the last thing you want is to interact more. Enter the board game, the book of puzzles, the coloring book, whatever you think would distract your family members while still allowing you to interact. I'm a personal fan of board games over dinner because the pause for turns keeps everyone involved while the game keeps your mind off more pressing issues, like the lack of job, job interviews, bills, etc. If you want to spend some quality time with your spouse, letting the kids read or play with a book of puzzles or a coloring book is a good way to distract them while the two of you talk. I don't like glowing screens or battery operated gizmos and gadgets at the table though. They are a little too effective at distracting kids.


Variety: What does a regular meal look like at your house?  Is it a one-pot dinner?  Is it one meat and two vegetables? Time to change it up a little bit.  The easiest thing to do is add courses to the meal.  Start with a soup, salad, or an easy appetizer.  Plan to serve dessert and get some cool whip to garnish even the simplest after dinner sweet.  If you love lingering over coffee at a restaurant, preload the coffee maker before dinner and have one of the kids hit the on button half way through the meal.

Another way to add variety to your meals is to join a cooking circle.  Different cooking clubs operate in different ways, but in general you prepare one meal in bulk, package it, and freeze it.  Keep one prepped meal for yourself and exchange the other prepacked meal with the members of your cooking circle.  You get three new to you homemade takeout meals that can be thawed out and served any time.  Eating out at home could be a great time to serve that cooking circle meal.

More Ways to Spice It Up:

  • Dress Up - If you wouldn't get groceries in what you're wearing you probably don't need to be sitting down to the table for an Eating Out Dinner In.  You will feel better if you take a quick minute to change into something that you feel good in. 
  • Clean up - Either clean as you go or make sure that the dishwasher is unloaded so everything can go straight into the washer after dinner.  That way once the meal is done there's little or no work to do, just like when you eat out.  
  • Change the lighting - Ever notice that when the lower the lighting at a restaurant the higher the bill?  You can recreate some of that high priced atmosphere at home by pulling out the candles, or unscrewing a light bulb or two.  Easiest is if you have a dimmer on the dining room lights.  
  • Add music - Play the radio or turn the stereo up loud enough so you can hear it at the table
  • Eat Outside - Ok, it's January here, so I'm not a huge fan of this one right now, but once it warms up you can bet I'm going to set up the back porch like an outdoor cafe.  
What would you do to make an evening in as much or more fun as an evening out?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Deadlines

Thought for the day:  be aware of deadlines.  No problems, just glad to have them on my calendar.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Never Say Never

For years I worked as a university academic advisor.  At one national conference I remember looking at the athletic department academic advisors and thinking "That's one job I never want to have."  Fast forward a couple of years, and guess what.  Yup, I was hired as an academic advisor in a university athletic department... and I loved it.  

Similarly I always thought that the worst thing that could happen would be for both of us to be out of work at the same time.  Now we're in that situation and...  well, it sucks.  I will admit that.  But, it's not as bad as I thought it would be.  

For one thing we've really had the chance to spend time with each other for the first time in a very long time.  Sure, there are a couple of things that drive us nuts about the other, but mostly it's been a real treat.  

We're also using this time to talk about what's important to us.  It's interesting how our guiding values lose their central position when we're distracted by the minutiae of everyday life.  I'm grateful that we've had the chance to sit down and evaluate our lives so clearly.  I don't want to have to go through a job loss again to find this new clarity of thought and purpose, but I have to admit that this has been good for us to do.  

So what's different now?  I'm going to try to never say never about anything because of the unexpected benefits new situations bring.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Spatula Goes In The Middle Drawer

The Spatula Goes In The Middle Drawer! Or I Love This Man But Don't Mess With Where I Put The Dishes

Years ago in an interview my husband was asked to describe himself in three words. “Tall Dark and Handsome” was his immediate reply. I do think he's tall, dark, and handsome and he's the most tenderhearted man I've ever had the privilege to love. I absolutely hate that he lost his job, but I am tickled pink to have him home all the time.

 Why?

Well, aside from the fact that he's not traveling all the time or working on email or taking business calls or dealing with other work related issues until all hours of the day and night, now he's got the time and energy to spend with us as we go through the mundane activities of daily life. This includes things like cooking dinner, shoveling the snow out of the driveway, overseeing our son's daily piano practice, you know, all the stuff that keeps the world turning normally. I will also take this opportunity to say that he is by far a better cook than I am (Hey, he had a head start on me!) So, long story short, whither I go, he goest. Which is all fine and dandy until he starts cooking.

“Where's the blue spatula?”

“It's in the middle drawer.”

“Why is it in the middle drawer? It's supposed to be in the left hand drawer, that's where the pancake turners and the wooden spoons are.”

At this point I must digress (again!). He was at work when I unpacked nearly all of the boxes. I got his help moving the couches into place, but I was the one who made the executive decisions about where the glasses went (right of the fridge,closest to the sink) and where to put the pots and pan (eye level, I hate having to duck under the cabinets to root around for the right lid/pot match). Things have quietly resided there since October 2008 and didn't cause any trouble for anyone. Until now.

“I like it in the middle drawer”

The really crazy thing is, as much as it drives me nuts that he's putting things in certain places that make no sense to me, these last two months together have been almost like a honeymoon (that whole stress thing and lack of cash flow makes it difficult for me to call it a true honeymoon).  We both know that we're doing everything we can to work through this time, and we are both finding more and more in each other that we love.  Except for the blue spatula.  I hate it when he puts it in the left hand drawer.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Impulse Buys


Ok, I'll admit it:  I miss impulse buys.  I don't mean the little things you throw into your cart, I mean the big stuff that we used to be able to buy without restructuring our budget.

It snowed here Christmas eve, hasn't gotten above freezing since, and isn't expected to warm up until sometime late next week.  In the meantime it's snowed two more times and we've been shoveling out our driveway and our neighbors' driveways.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but shoveling snow sucks.

If this had happened a year ago I would have headed over to the nearest big box home improvement store and bought a snow blower.  Yeah it would have been pricey, but I wouldn't just be using it for my drive, I'd be using it for our elderly next door neighbor and our own drive as well as anyone else who puppydogeyed us.  I miss that.  I miss the freedom to buy tools that make life easier.  I'm very thankful that we have enough to cover our expenses for the time being, but I am really looking forward to the day when we go back to pennypinching by choice and not out of necessity.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Menu Planning

I've always tried to be relatively frugal with our meals, but now it's on overdrive.  Here's how my weekly meal planning goes:

1)Shop the cupboards:  I start off by checking the fridge, freezer, pantry, and in warm weather I'll check the garden.  My husband hunts, so we have a decent amount of venison in the freezer, and meat is usually the most expensive part of each meal. I also tend to have some frozen vegetables that I will have picked up during store sales.  I'll start filling in my weekly menu based on items we already have.

2) Price Match: I'll take a look at the Wednesday grocery sales flyers or the Sunday Target/Wal-Mart flyers to see what the cheapest food is each week. I'll use this to complete my weekly meal plan.  When I get to the store I'll either price match at my favorite grocery store or go to the store with the cheapest groceries that week, and price match the remaining items on my list there. Locally we have only one store that doesn't price match, but as I rarely go there that's not much of an issue for me.

3) Shop from a list:  I really try hard not to go to the store more than once a week.  Since we eat nearly every meal at home, that ends up being a pretty full cart.  By having a detailed list I get everything I need for the week and avoid adding pricey extras on each trip.  I like using allrecipes.com to create a detailed shopping list.

4) Scratch & Dent/Day old bread: Most grocery stores have a clearance area or a cart full of items that are banged up or nearing their expiration date.  I take a look at this area on every trip, but I won't buy unless it's an item that we will use in a timely basis.  Generally my bread comes from the day old cart, and occasionally I will purchase meat that is nearing its expiration date.

5) Use Coupons.  I have a friend who saves beaucoup on her groceries using coupons, but that hasn't worked well for our family.  I do use coupons for laundry detergent, toothpaste, deodorant, and other manufactured consumables, but I also compare the price with coupon to the store brand and to buying in bulk.

What works well for your family?