Ethical Easter Baskets

Not sure about you, but I am a little bit obsessed with holidays. Of course as kids, most of us are. We get presents and candy and attention and special food and there’s MAGIC. A lot of people then get disillusioned with the whole thing as they grow up and find out that it’s not real. You mean my parents were lying to me?! LAME. That was my mom’s handwriting on the Christmas presents, and a giant bunny doesn’t hide candy in your house with a giant magic key?! DUPED.

Not me. The magic of it all intensified. You mean my parents did all this for me? The ones who always say no to toys and candy and clothes the cool girls had at school? The ones who make me save all my money and never let me do anything fun? They’re the ones who perfectly curated all the holidays with the things and experiences I always wanted? WOW. MIND BLOWN (before that was even a phrase). I felt like I was now in on the best secret in the world and was all the more excited to create my own holiday fun with my friends as a young adult and now as a parent for my three kids.

With all this curated magic comes work, right? To recreate all the special memories I had as a kid during the holidays, I put some pressure on myself. Not gonna lie, there are some intense moments inside my own mind about how to create these experiences. What is too much, or too little? How much should I spend? Go big or go home for everything, or pick a few favorites and stick with it? The answer for me is usually all of the above or somewhere in between.

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As we prepare for Easter this year, I’m putting another question in the basket (see what I did there?): is it ethically made? I’ve become a more conscious consumer over the last year or so, and I want to be intentional about the gifts I give my children. Since responsible shopping comes with extra research, and that is a big reason why a lot of us don’t make it a priority (real life, am I right?) I’ve gathered some of my ideas here for you to use. Ethical shopping doesn’t have to be all serious. Have some fun, get some cute things your children will adore, and make a statement with your purchases that you will not support companies who employ children, who do not pay fair wages or do not provide safe working/living environments.

Where to Shop

Thrift/Resale/Consignment

I feel like this option easily gets left off a lot of lists promoting ethical consumerism. Probably because it’s not very consumer-y? (Totally a word!) But y’all, this is a super economical AND ethical way to shop, especially for kiddos! I can virtually guarantee you have a shop (or a few!) in your town that you can peruse, check out your local Craigslist or FB Marketplace, or stop by my FAVORITE shop: little peeps children’s resale. Natasha always finds the most amazing things for such great prices!

Local Shops

I love shopping local whenever I can. We have a super cute kids store in my city called Hopscotch and they carry eco friendly brands and locally made and ethically sourced items. I have gotten some of our family’s favorite books there, and they are a great resource for new parents when it comes to babywearing and cloth diapers.

Online

Last resort, shop online! We live in a magical modern age where literally anything you want is a click of a button away. I’m lucky enough to live in an area with lots of ethically made items, but if you’re not, you don’t have to sacrifice. Just a simple google search using search terms that include “fair trade” or “sustainable” or “ethical” will guide you on your way!

What to Get

Fair Trade Candy

Perhaps you are familiar with fair trade chocolate; there are more options available every time I’m in my local grocery store. However, Easter-specific chocolate was harder to find. In case you didn’t already know, the chocolate industry is somewhat notorious for using children to harvest cocoa. Instead of mindlessly purchasing the same brands you always do, find alternatives that are made without the use of child labor, like these:

milk-placesetting-ribbonChocolate Bunnies: Lake Champlain Chocolates, Natural Candy Store
Chocolate Eggs: Divine Chocolate USA, Natural Candy Store, Lake Champlain Chocolates
Jellybeans: Natural Candy Store
Local Chocolatiers (Grand Rapidians, check out Grocer’s Daughter and MoKAYA!)

Ethically Made Pajamas

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I have no idea what it is about kids’ pajamas but I AM OBSESSED. I use almost every holiday as an excuse to get them new pajamas. The brand I usually buy, while adorable, are not ethically made so I have discovered a few new brands in varying price points.

Burt’s Bees Baby
Dhana
PACT Organic

 

Homemade Hair Bows

Now that I have two daughters, I am not ashamed to admit I make them match. My two favorite shops: Little Ladybug Accessories & Creative Rinds have super adorable options for holidays and everyday hairdo fun.

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There is a cute little ethical shop in my city that carries these ladies’ matte eggplant ankle-style rainboots that I’ve had my eye on. (Sorry, that’s a little off topic…) But I did find out they have a children’s collection! ROMA Boots makes super sturdy, practical, gender neutral rainboots for kids…AND they’re an incredible company that gives back.

Bathing Suits

You can definitely check your local thrift store for super affordable options, or peruse ethically made and minded stores like Boden USA. <- Get 20% off! I love that they have options for my little paleontologist-in-training like this super adorable she-saurus bathing suit.

Outdoor Toys

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I check out my local kid’s shop for sustainably made items. Gardening tools, beach toys, DIY bubbles and chalk are favorites for my kiddos.

Stuffed Animals

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If your house is like mine, you may be overloaded with these fuzzy critters, but don’t let that deter you from checking out this incredible company cuddle+kind. Their seriously adorable animals are ethically handmade in Peru, and they donate 10 meals for each doll purchased. They all have cute names and birthdays, like Chloe pictured here with my daughter who were both born in August.

Experiences

Always a tried and true option and the gift that keeps on giving. I have been known to ask family members who might give my kids gifts for the holidays to think about experiences. Trips to the movies, for ice cream, or to the beach. Lessons for swimming, or skiing, or dance. Memberships to the children’s museum, the zoo or tickets to plays or sporting events.

Books

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I always like adding to my children’s library for gifts. It encourages their love of reading, expands their knowledge of the world, and when done carefully and intentionally can be sustainable, too! Does your library have a kids’ program? Consider getting a membership or their own library card! You can also look second hand either at used bookstores, mom to mom or garage type sales or often your library will have sales on books no longer in circulation. You’d be surprised how many books you can find in great condition!

Sandals

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The future is bright.

Where there’s spring, there’s summer waiting around the corner! Ditch the socks and put some adorably ethically made sandals in their Easter baskets. These ribbon sandals made at Sseko Designs help send women in Uganda to college and come in tons of fun colors. And mom can get herself a pair to match, just sayin’.

*That’s my affiliate link right there, just for transparency’s sake and all that.*

 

 

 

Necessities

You’ll notice that some of these items above also fit into this category, but I wanted it to stand alone, too. If you’re like me and are often overwhelmed by all the STUFF, please do not think you need to give your children MORE to make a holiday feel special. Do your kids need a new toothbrush? Socks? Plates and utensils? Summer clothes? Underwear? Diapers? A new backpack for school because they lost it? (That really happens, just so you know.) Put it in a basket and hide it and your kids will be SO excited. I do this all the time, and it still makes it fun and special without breaking the bank or giving yourself extra STUFF to deal with.

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Why yes, those are free toothbrushes from the dentist. HAPPY EASTER!

Well, I hope I saved your Easter Bunny a lot of time avoiding the research black hole with some easy, ethical, and fun options for your kids’ baskets this year! If you have any suggestions to update this list, please let me know because I would love to hear from you!

Holes

I just bought this sweater from a popular clothing brand because I had a gift card. I already felt guilty about it because I knew this brand was not ethically minded. Meaning, they are known to use factories with unsafe work environments, utilize slave and child labor, and do not source materials in a sustainable way. But these kinds of companies are LARGE and pervasive and are sometimes unavoidable. So, when I shop at unethical retailers (because let’s face it, when I have free money – I use it!), I focus on buying items that are versatile and built to last. I spent a lot time lingering at this store trying to settle on a piece that fit my criteria for building an ethical wardrobe. It’s neutral, it’s basic, it’s durable. Okay, done, swipe, shudder, and move on.

WELL.

I wore and washed this ONCE and now the gaping HOLE (pictured above) sneered at me as I took it out of the drawer. I was then thrust immediately back to that day in the store with my children whining about pizza and the litany of thoughts zooming through my mind as I wrestled with this very complicated decision…

I have one gift card. I have to use it! Spend wisely. This is not an ethical store. I need to be very conscious of what I buy! No, you cannot run around the racks. Does this sweater go with enough items in my closet? Is the person who works here judging how long this is taking me? Yes, we will have pizza after this. Only if you’re good. Now I remember why I shop online.

When I saw the hole, I felt like crying. I know that probably sounds silly. After all, it’s just a sweater. This has happened to all of us, right? We laugh at ourselves and say, “Well, now I know why this sweater was so cheap!” But that hole represents so much more than MY wasted money or my wasted opportunity to get compliments. This isn’t about me at all.

The person who made this sweater likely was paid very little, if anything at all. She is hungry and goes without meals. She sent her children away because she cannot afford to house and feed them. She is at great risk of injury or death due to her unsafe work environment. Modern day slavery is very real. We are hidden from it as American consumers partly because we want to be. Yes, companies go through great lengths to distance us from these horrible truths, but the bigger reality is: we don’t want to know. We like paying less for cheap things that get holes in them so we have an excuse to buy more. We think it makes us feel good, but in reality we are just fueling an industry that represents and provides wealth for very few people. Our endless cycle of replacing poorly made items makes us feel nothing at best. And at the worst, we contribute to a global systemic problem of poverty, hunger, broken families, and death. No, it’s not just a sweater.

We have an immense amount of power in our choices. Beyond bright or neutral, tight or flowy, our clothing represents who we are, our personalities, and what’s important to us. We want to feel confident in how we look AND how we contributed to someone else’s success. Let the holes in our sweaters represent a life well-lived and full of adventure, and not one trip through the washing machine in exchange for a person’s dignity.

For more insight into the significant problems facing the garment industry today, check out The True Cost, available on Netflix. #lifechanger If you do, please drop a comment or an email and let me know what you think!

Versatility & Simplicity Rules

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If you know me (and if you’re reading this right now there’s a good chance that you do) you know that I like to keep my style simple. In fact, for the LONGEST time I didn’t even think I had a style or that the fashion world was something for me. I am a jeans and tshirt kinda girl. I do not do my hair or makeup and I do not follow trends. This may sound kind of funny coming from a stylist and impact entrepreneur who works for an ethical fashion company. Maybe even a bit disingenuous, like I’m trying to be someone I’m not in order to sneakily gain your trust or something. But to be honest, it’s the truth. I never saw myself as a fashionista, and I will admit I may have done a bit of impolite scoffing at people who were. (Sorry about that.) In reality though, we are all part of the fashion industry. Maybe we do not keep watch and buy new trends or are bold and unique in our style, but we all purchase clothes and care about what people think. Our clothing affects how people see us and the impression we give, and so whether we realize or not, we think pretty carefully about what we wear and the message it may send. It’s taken me some time, but I generally am okay with the message I am sending with my wardrobe. It’s simple, casual, and approachable, and that’s who I want the world to see.

At present, especially since starting work with Sseko Designs, I have become intentional about the clothes I wear. Previously, I spent very little time thinking about what I was buying and wearing. I clearly had a specific style (we all do) but I did not curate it or think about it. If I bought a sweater that was like 3 other sweaters in my closet, that was fine because I just had simple taste. But decades later that adds up to a lot of duplicate items that create a lot of chaos and laundry. I did spend quite a bit of January 2018 cleaning my closet, and sorting through clothes, and creating a wardrobe that was more functional and easy (as is my style anyway). This included adding some staple pieces that were extremely versatile. Not only do I want to be intentional about where my clothes come from (and who made them, and if they were treated and paid properly), but I want to also be intentional about what those clothes ARE. What are their function? What purpose do they serve in my daily life?

Enter this black shift dress. Everyone knows a little black dress will go FAR in your closet. They rarely go out of style, black is a color that looks good on everyone, and you always have occasions that pop up last minute that require the flexibility of the LBD. It’s not that I’ve never owned one before, but I’ve never owned one that made me quite so creative. I am evolving into a person who can wear the same piece multiple ways, for multiple occasions and be proud of that fact, instead of worried that others would notice I was re-wearing something. Like I am some kind of Kate Middleton-esque celebrity that people spend time caring about how often I wore this one blue shirt to preschool drop off. A key component to an ethical wardrobe is wearing what you already have, repurposing clothing, and choosing pieces that are not only versatile themselves, but that also go with a lot of other items in your closet. A capsule wardrobe and minimal wardrobes also have similar goals and virtues.

We are all a work in progress, but I am really excited about the black shift. It fits sizes 0-16 and can be worn SO MANY ways, with SO MANY things. I had so much fun playing around with looks (instead of organizing my closet…ha) and am excited to share them with you! Which is your favorite? Do you have a versatile piece of clothing that you can wear lots of ways? Share with me here or tag me on Instagram @kmhohostyle. I’d love to see how creative you are!

6 ways to wear the black shift dress

My closet is practically empty and it makes me weirdly happy.

Style 1: Super fun and flowy with the multiway shawl, also from Sseko Designs. The new bold palm print this season is AMAZE. You can also see how unashamedly obsessed I am with the half moon necklace. #sorrynotsorry

Style 2: Super old cardigan gets new life with the shift dress! Pop of color is nice, warmth is necessary this time of year in Michigan, and the structure is also helpful on smaller frames.

Style 3: Tied with a scarf belt to give it some structure and color. I pulled the top out a bit which evened up the bottom hem and gave it a more empire waist look to it. That mini ring tote though…all the heart eyes for mint leather this season!

Style 4: JEAN JACKETS ARE BACK! I don’t care what you say, the 90s are here and I’m all over it. The stiffness of the jacket gives the dress some structure if you want less flow. The black leggings are a great addition, especially if you’re taller than me and want more coverage. Suede brave necklace with your favorite charms and quail (dreamy dusty purple) tassel clutch complete the look!

Style 5: Well, I guess this one is kinda cheating, but I wanted to show you how fun the v-neck in the back is!! Definitely gives the dress a different look. It also changes the jewelry you can wear.

Style 6: SOLO!! Here I am wearing it with burgundy tights and black knee-high boots.

So, to be honest, you will still see me in that shirt and jeans at preschool drop off most days because Kate Middleton I am not. However, I love having a casual and fun option to wear when I want to spice it up a bit. By only shopping once and buying ONE item, I am able to now create several different outfits for different occasions. While we do sometimes pay more for ethical brands, we do end up spending LESS overall on our clothes budget, which is a WIN WIN in my book.

Chaos Defined

I feel like to begin on this journey I need to define (my) chaos. I think it’s been so hard for me to do because I have constantly submersed myself in this swirling madness and made it normal. And so now, I am standing on a precipice. I can continue on in the direction I was going, the direction most of us are going, and basically hang on for dear life and hope to feel like my life was put together at the end. Or I can take the birth of my 3rd child as a true new beginning not only for her, but for me.

When my first child was born, my husband and I made the choice for me to stay at home. It was a relatively easy choice for us as my husband had a good income (and I really didn’t) and it was something we had discussed pre-marriage. While we did have some initial struggles to balance a budget, adjust our spending, and for me specifically to learn how to become a mother and manage a household, it was an easy transition. (I do recognize my privilege in saying so.)

And so from there, I MANAGED IT ALL. I was a queen, if I do say so myself. I got the baby on a sleep schedule. She was on a feeding schedule, and I made my own baby food. I did monthly meal planning (which you will see featured in the earlier posts here). I made homemade bread (has it really only been 5 years?). The baby wore cloth diapers. I cleaned my whole house top to bottom every week – like even the baseboards clean.  I started a blog (as one does when you’re intellectually bored). I was really feeling pretty high on myself at this point. I mean, people were asking me for advice like I was an expert! <future self rolls eyes>

My second child was born, and my world came crashing down. I know you saw that coming, didn’t you? I. Did. Not. Regardless of what people told me about managing 2 kids, I did not believe them. I really got served a huge slice of humble pie as my son did not sleep well, did not eat well, and I struggled with postpartum anxiety (though I did not realize it at the time). It was here where I thought to myself, WELL, let’s just throw the whole organizational thing out the window! No one wants their schedule to be a burden. Yes, I am now going to be one of those FREE moms, who just lives life on a whim, is happy all the time with messy kids and a messy life.  I don’t wash my hair, don’t care.

Well, spoiler alert: that really did not work either. It took quite a bit of time, therapy, and real life lessons to come out on the other side of that mess. Not to say I’m not still a work in progress, because full disclosure: I don’t have it all together; but I am figuring out who I am and what I need. Now that we have 3 little ones, I really feel the balance arriving. It’s a managed chaos. It has to be. I need to have a meal schedule and a sleep schedule and a when to wash the clothes and wipe the counters schedule (and I really can’t fake it, though trust me, I still try). But I also have to let a lot go – including washing my hair every day…which is apparently better for your hair, who knew? I don’t need to rebel against being organized in order to be free. These are not mutually exclusive, and in fact during the weeks when I am most organized, I feel the most like myself and happy.

Parenting has really taught me a lot about myself, and I feel like I am coming full circle around to the person I was always meant to be. Not an extreme version of one or another, but just completely and truly me: semi-organized, sensitive, focused and free. When I am this best version of myself, I find so much meaning in the every day. And it is that which I hope to share with all of you.

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Nursery Sneak Peek!

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We have finally started putting together Noodle’s (what my 2 year old calls him – adorable) nursery! It’s true what they say about subsequent children….our first’s nursery was completely done well before 34 weeks. Oh well. As we have learned, we have PLENTY of time.

Just got finished painting and hanging some curtains. The tie backs are from leftover fabric used to make the book slings. The lamp I got for free from a friend and spray painted it and got a new shade.

I have a lot of odds and ends that I’ve either repurposed or made to decorate that will be going up in the next few weeks.

So. Much. Fun.

Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Okay, so full disclosure: having a toddler DOES take up a lot more time than a newborn.  The baby that used to sleep 20 hours a day now only sleeps like 12-14.  That’s a lot of hours I used to have to myself…

Anyway, just wanted to share this recipe for honey whole wheat bread.  I was looking for a good sandwich bread, that’s also toddler friendly.  Norah was having trouble chewing the English muffin bread I made because it’s super crunchy, and, well, chewy.  So, away to Pinterest I went, and it delivered.  This recipe is amazing and easy.  And full of fiber – of which everyone can use a little more.  (It’s not 100% whole wheat however.  If you’re looking for that, I suggest doing at least half white whole wheat.)  It took awhile to find a good recipe that didn’t have a million extra weird ingredients that I would have to buy.  Flaxseed meal is probably the only thing you don’t have, and it’s relatively (to wheat germ and 4 kinds of flour) cheap at the grocery store.  Since you don’t use a ton in this recipe it should last you a few months.  It’s also easy to throw into yogurt or other recipes for extra fiber.  The bread is freezable, too, of course.

Honey Whole Wheat Bread | Jersey Up!

Honey Whole Wheat Bread
Adapted from Summer Harms

Makes 2 loaves

5 cups warm water
4.5 teaspoons rapid rise yeast (or bread machine/instant yeast – same thing)
1/2 cup honey
3.5 cups whole wheat flour (you can also use half whole wheat and half white wheat)
5 cups all purpose or bread flour
1/2 cup ground/meal of flaxseed
3 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons butter

1. Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl or in your stand mixer with the dough hook attachment.  Dough should be easy to handle and not too sticky.
2. Separate dough into two greased loaf pans.  Cover and let rise.  (I use plastic wrap, but a towel is fine too.)  It will probably take about an hour depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  To speed the process, place the pans on top of your preheating oven.
3. Bake at 375˚ for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.
4. Brush melted butter on top, and allow the loaves to cool completely on a rack.
5. To freeze, wrap in plastic wrap and then tin foil.  Defrost on the counter uncovered.

Garden Spoils

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Although I am still lamenting my squash (maybe it’ll come back??) I’m so excited to report lots of tomatoes and peppers!!

A juicy burger with stuff from your own personal garden tastes THE BEST!

I now have about 10 tomatoes reddening up on my counter. Any good canning recipes?

Monthly Meal Planning

Monthly Meal Planning | Jersey Up!

If you’re anything like me, you are a marketing major’s dream.  All the junk they design and put at the register – I buy.  The pretty packaging – I buy.  The orange clearance sticker – I buy.  The free online coupons for stuff I don’t need – I buy.  I don’t think I need to embarrass myself anymore; you get the idea.

When my daughter was born and I stopped working, I knew theoretically it would be a financial challenge.  I just figured we’d go out to eat less and we’d be fine.  Challenge accepted!  Who wants to go out to eat with a new baby anyway?  We’d be so fine!  I was so, so wrong.  I think I just completely underestimated how much my income meant to us, and as a result undervalued my contribution to our family.

I spent a lot of money the first few months my daughter was here.  What else is there to do with a newborn?  Go shopping for cute newborn clothes.  Go Pinterest crazy and try new and expensive recipes.  (Wait, what?  Just because you cook it at home, doesn’t mean it’s cheaper?!)  I mean, this was my new job now.  I should take it seriously, right?

It took us awhile to realize that we were struggling to make ends meet with all the spending I was doing.  I had to take a real hard look at where we could cut back – what actually was frivolous, and what was necessary.  Like, for real, necessary.

We started tracking all of our spending.  ALL OF OUR SPENDING.  Those random $1s really add up!  Recognized where we were overdoing it and cut back.  (I will do another post soon on family budgeting because although related to monthly meal planning, is a completely separate task.)  One area that needed major improvement was grocery.  I am so embarrassed to tell you that we spent sometimes $200 on groceries – PER WEEK.  Just us two adults.  I don’t know how it happened.  Don’t ask.

I went on a parade of coupons, sales, circulars, etc.  I still wasn’t spending less.  I couldn’t help myself when the baby clothes were “on sale” or I saw a delicious new recipe on Pinterest that required like 8 new spices.  I finally decided that if I went to the store less often, I would spend less.  (Sorry marketing majors.)

I know, I’m brilliant!  I have to say that monthly meal planning isn’t for the faint at heart.  It takes a lot of work and planning (hah, really?) but it is totally doable and will save your family hundreds of dollars a month.

STEP 1: PLAN
There are a lot of things to consider before you begin meal planning.  I will list a lot of questions for you to answer for yourself and your family.  I’ll share my answers to help you out and explain how I did things, but it’s important for you to be honest with yourself about these answers.  It won’t work until you are.  Promise.

How often do you go out to eat per week/month?  Be honest.  Can you cut it back?
We used to go out to eat 3x a week or more before Norah was born and we were both working.  Maybe a lunch or two at work and dinner at least twice.  Now, we go out to eat maybe 2-3 times per month.  You should factor those into your monthly plan – both in a financial and a scheduling sense.  And also recognize that just because you are eating at home, doesn’t mean you are automatically going to be spending less.  Just believe me; don’t test it.

How long does it take you to go through one dinner?  I mean, do you have leftovers for days, or is it eaten all in one sitting?
For us, it depends on the dish.  Of course the size of the dish, and what it is.  Really yummy food does not hang around that long.  😉  Generally speaking though, we have enough leftovers for 3 meals per week, in addition to several lunches per week.  So in planning meals – we make sure we buy items for 4 new meals, plus a handful of lunches.  If you have a larger family, you will probably have one leftover night, if any.  So you’ll of course spend more on your groceries than I will.  I’ll go more into detail about our meal schedule later on.

How often does your family eat meat?  Three meals a day, every day?  Once a week?  Never?
This question is important because meat is expensive.  Arguably the most expensive thing on your grocery receipt.  (Besides cheese, if you’re me.  Honest to God…)  I have tried since starting this meal planning adventure to have at least one dinner per week that is meatless.  (AKA the countless Meatless Monday challenges you see all over the internet.)  We also hardly eat meat for breakfast anymore.  (I miss you, bacon.)  We will occasionally buy lunch meat for sandwiches, but not always.  It’s more of a treat now, than a necessity.  (See what I mean about redefining what is necessary??)

What do you want to eat for lunch?  Leftovers?  Sandwiches?  Are you okay with having the same lunch every day for a week?
We typically have enough leftovers for lunch in addition to the 3 dinners per week.  Some weeks we run out or just get plain tired of the same casserole, so we have extra lunch items on hand.  Frozen lunch tacos are a big hit.  We also always have bread, peanut butter and jam.  Sometimes we have lunch meat.  We always have cheese (can’t help it).  And cans of soup.   We also usually have fresh fruit available for snack or as a side with lunch.

What do you want to eat for breakfast?  Are you okay with having the same breakfast every day in a week?
For breakfast we stock up on bread, eggs, peanut butter, jam, and yogurt.  We sometimes have breakfast burritos in the freezer for quick and easy.  We also have fresh fruit most mornings or as a snack.  You will spend less if you just eat the same thing for breakfast every morning, and buy in bulk, but we have not yet been willing to make that kind of sacrifice.

What are you willing to/can you make yourself and/or grow?  What can you reuse?
I have learned a lot this past year on what my limits are on making/growing.  I have now started to bake my own bread.  Not only is it delicious, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying bread at the store.  Same goes for buns, rolls, and other baked goods.  (Including dessert – yum.)  Want buff arms to boot?  Shred your own cheese.  You’ll save millions.  We also started our driveway garden experiment.  At this point in early August, we haven’t harvested enough to impact our monthly grocery budget, but I hope the day is coming soon!  I also made my own baby food for Norah which saved us a significant amount of money.  In the reuse category, we stopped completely using paper plates.  How wasteful – both from a financial and a planet perspective.  We still do use paper towels, but significantly dropped how often.  We cloth diaper and repurpose shirts and washcloths for cleaning rags instead of buying clorox wipes (oh, how I miss you!).

What groceries can you cut back or nix altogether?
This one is tough.  It’s hard to give up luxuries we didn’t even know were luxury.  Soda.  Mmm, craft beer.  Fancy shampoo and face wash.  Makeup.  Pre-packaged meals.  Pre-marinated meats.  Specialty bread.  Paper plates.  Ooooh, fancy coffee.  But as each month went by, I realized that it was less about deserving nice things, and more about being less wasteful.

STEP 2: WHAT YA GOT?
Before you do anything else, you need to go shopping in your own house.  Do this part before you plan your meals.  Trust me.  Remember those boxes of Hamburger Helper from college?  The 10 cans of soup?  The 5 salad dressings hidden behind each other?  Mystery meat in the freezer?  Use up all that stuff.  You’ll be SHOCKED at how much food you actually have.

1. Throw out what is bad.  What is actually bad, not just what looks weird or you don’t know what it is or you just don’t plain like it that much.  Just do it and don’t feel bad about yourself.  Sure, it’s wasted, but leaving it sitting in your fridge or cabinet isn’t making it un-wasteful, it’s just hiding what you actually CAN use.
2. Make a list of what is usable.  Do you have a bunch of meat in the freezer you can use?  How about some soups or some rice or pasta?  Marinades and dressings?  Write it all down; at least at first.  Once you get better at using what you actually have, you won’t need to write everything down; you’ll just know.
3. Decide if there are any meals in what you already have.  Marinade and meat – done!  Soup and sandwiches – done!  Rice and beans – done!

If you do it right, you probably have a few meals available to you that you didn’t know you had!  Try to avoid the “nahh, I don’t feel like having that” attitude.  Eat up what you have already.  By the end of each month, you should literally have nothing left to eat.  Not like “I have nothing in my closet to wear – wah” – literally nothing.  No more waste, friends!

STEP 3: SALES
Okay, take out the circulars.  What is on sale this week?  If you’re lucky, it’s meat!  Your goal is to buy only what is actually on sale.  And if you have a coupon to go on top of it – good for you!  But get the sale first.  It’s the better deal.  Did you hear me?  Coupons are not a good deal.  But what about extreme coupon ladies?  Say it with me again: coupons are not a good deal.  Buy on sale only.  Coupons are only a bonus AFTER things are on sale.  This is my mantra I chant when I am at the store, staring longingly at my coupons.

I know this is hard.  I know you need stuff that isn’t on sale this week.  That’s okay.  You’ll get better at it.  The longer you do this, the more you can anticipate your family’s needs when things are on sale.  For example, we only buy a certain kind of toilet paper.  (I have a sensitive bum, okay?)  When its on sale, I stock up!  I leave room in my budget to buy “stock up” items.  I don’t mean extreme coupon lady stock up – I just buy what we’ll use in a month or two, in case I don’t hit the sale next time.  For things that brand doesn’t matter – I get whichever is on sale.

Circulars and online prices don’t cover everything.  Sometimes you won’t know certain items are on sale until you get to the store.  You may have to change up a recipe to use a different type of meat.  Or you may choose to leave your side items open ended til you see what’s on sale.  Or you have to completely bag a recipe you wanted to try and pick something else that’s on sale.  I know this made me makes me stressed out while shopping, but it gets easier.

STEP 4: MEALS
Aha, yes!  Finally to the meal planning part!  Get out your calendar (I print plain ones from Word) and cute markers and get going!  Okay, color coding is not required, but it’s my favorite part.

1. Plan any outings for your month.  Do you have a wedding or a trip or friends visiting?  You’ll need to not only budget for that but also plan your meals around that.
2. How many leftover nights per week can you handle?  Factor those in.  We do 3 per week, so 12 per month.
3. How many meals do you already have in your house?  Plop those down on your calendar.  Be sure to spread out ingredients.  You don’t want variations of chicken and rice all week.
4. Now plan new meals.  How many do you have to do?  We normally range from 12-15 dinners and 30 lunches and breakfasts each.  You can go on Pinterest for new recipe ideas – though beware of the pricey ones!  They can sneak up on you.  Put down some family favorites – do you love pizza night?  Soup and sandwiches?  Pot roast?  Meatloaf?  Whatever you love/want to eat.

Things to Consider
-Use the same ingredients for multiple recipes so you can buy in bulk and/or take advantage of sale prices.
-The less ingredients per recipe, the better.
-Certain ingredients are always cheaper: rice, beans, some kinds of pasta, some freezer meal items, certain cuts of meat (like chicken thighs vs breasts).  Incorporate these things into your menu.  Certain ingredients are always more expensive; ahem, cheese.
-Not all meals are created equal.  Some are better for monthly planning than others.  Crockpot = golden.  I suggest planning non-freezer-friendly meals for earlier in the month.
-You can freeze a lot of things really well that you probably didn’t know.  Milk.  Bread.  Yogurt (though the consistency changes).  Cheese.  Some herbs.  Some fruit and most vegetables.
-Don’t be afraid to eat the same thing twice in one month.  It’s cheaper to buy in bulk and better to use the ingredients than let them rot.
-Plan any meals with fresh items earlier in the month to avoid them spoiling before you get to eat them.  This seems obvious, I know, but worth mentioning as I have made this mistake before.

STEP 5: LIST
Yes, the list is required.  Write down ingredients you need for your recipes.  Household essentials you need for the month: paper goods, toiletries, baby items, etc.  The list will be long; it’s helpful if you organize it by aisle.  Don’t forget about freezer bags or containers.

STEP 6: SHOPPING
The number one rule of shopping is stick to your list.  I break this every time.  But do as I say, not as I do.  😉

The only exception with sticking to the list is if things are not on sale.  If they’re not on sale, you shouldn’t buy them, remember?  You may need to rearrange some meal ideas if that is the case, but hopefully you won’t have to do that too much if you checked the circulars before you planned.

If you have “helpers”, it may be wise to have a babysitter or your partner stay home while you do the shopping alone.  Otherwise you will end up with your 9-month old carrying your rotisserie chicken and bag o’ apples (see photo).

If you have a “stock up” budget, be careful.  Only stock up on items that are on a really good sale (for real, now), will not go bad, and are NECESSARY.  Sure, those frozen pizzas are a great deal, but do you even like those cardboard boxes?  Are they even cheaper than making your own pizza, even at the great deal?  Think about it really hard.  Items we routinely stock up on are toilet paper (because we only buy one brand), canned goods we eat several times monthly, cheese on really good super sale, and meats.  If you hit meat on a good sale, buy it.

Things to Consider
-Freezer vegetables are a smidge more expensive than canned vegetables but are healthier.  For us, the few cents per ounce more is worth the extra benefit.
-Check the “per ounce” price.  Sometimes the bigger package is cheaper, sometimes not.  Sometimes with sales, the name brand price is cheaper than the store brand.  Furthermore, when things are on sale you will have to do your own math to calculate the per ounce price.  At least at my store, the per ounce price listed is the non-sale price.  Tricky, tricky!
-Take a cold, hard look at what your “staples” are at the store.  Whether that be brands, or pre-packaged items, or whatever.  There are still times where I realize that I am buying something just because “we always buy it” instead of whether we actually needed it or not.
-A lot of freezer recipes call for stock (chicken, beef, vegetable).  Get the bouillon cubes instead and you will save a pile of money.
-Avoid snacks if you can.  This is a big budget buster.  And, ya know, potato chips aren’t healthy anyway.  I’m doing you a favor, see?

Where You Shop
This can make a huge impact on your budget.  Depending on where you live, you may have more options available to you.  Smaller towns with less competition (like where we live) have higher prices.  Certain cities have higher prices than suburbs.  The drive to a cheaper store may or may not be worth it.  Additionally, price club stores like Costco or Sam’s Club might not be worth the membership fee unless you have a large enough family to justify the bulk items.  With only one child who eats like a bird (toddler, anyone?), it’s not worth it for us.  But, only you can figure that out for your family; there isn’t one straight answer.  But, it’s just something to think about.

STEP 7: PREP
Meal prep is honestly the worst part of the whole thing.  It takes a lot of effort to prepare the meals ahead of time for the freezer.

1. Label all your bags/containers with your meals, instructions, and the date.  Any old sharpie will do.  Good time to practice your handwriting.
2. Add your raw meat to the bags or containers first.  This just makes the bags (what we use) easier to stand up to put in the other ingredients.  Then you can clean up the meat juice and start clean with the rest of your ingredients.  (If your recipe calls for the meat to be pre-cooked, then obviously do that first.)
3. Chop vegetables, fruit, etc. all at one time.  Henry Ford thought the assembly line was a good idea, and so do I!
4. Add marinades, oils, spices, etc.
5. Pop the bags into the freezer!  To save space, lay them down flat to freeze.  They’ll make a nice shape that is easy, once frozen, to stand up in a row.  Saves space and also makes it easy to pull out what you need when the time comes.

Things to Consider
-I also make breakfast and lunch taco/burritos.  (The name is up for debate in our house.)  I wrap these up in tinfoil and can fit about 10 or so in a freezer bag.  A minute in the micro is all you need.
-If your recipe calls for canned items, such as tomatoes and green chiles, you may want to keep those in your pantry and add them to the meal/crockpot after you take it out of the freezer.  Canned items will stay good through the month obviously, and it will save you some space in your now crammed freezer.
-Meats will marinate as they thaw, so if you’re planning a marinated steak or pot roast, mix those up in freezer bags as well.

A note about freezer space
My husband swore to me up and down that all this food would not fit in the freezer. Would.  Not.  Fit.  It fits.  We have a 5 cu.ft. freezer.  When you cut out the junk in your life that you don’t need and don’t have a freezer full of mystery items you forgot about, it’s amazing how much space you have to store everything.

That said, if you want to be really crafty and stock up on meat sales, or buy a 1/4 steer like we are doing at the fair this year, or you have a large family – a chest freezer might be a good option for you.  They are affordable for what you get out of them, though they are an upfront cost you will need to consider for your budget.  We are currently shopping around for a scratch and dent or reconditioned model for the basement.  (I am refraining from sharing my nightmares with you.)

STEP 8: EAT!
Arguably, the best step.  You now have a freezer and pantry FULL of food for the month for your family.  Did you save money?  I sure hope so!  I know I get better at it every month.  It’s really satisfying to pull a meal out of the freezer that is already prepared in the morning, and have it ready by dinner time for you to enjoy.  Don’t be afraid to rearrange your meal plan.  Everything is frozen (or perhaps canned) and will last the month – if you’d rather have pot roast tonight instead of pizza, go for it!  Your meal planning should work for you, not against you.  The hard work truly pays off and I hope you are proud of yourself!!

Addendum: Return Trips to the Store
This one is so tricky.  We do sometimes have to go back.  We eat all our fresh fruit.  I forgot something (or 10 things).  We just really, really want ice cream.  It happens.  It’s okay.  Leave room in your grocery budget for return trips, or you’ll be up the creek without a paddle.

I hope my version of monthly meal planning is helpful to you.  It has taken a lot of work, a lot of mistakes, and sadly, a lot of wasted money to get here.  Hopefully with my help, it doesn’t take you quite as long!  I can now proudly say that some months I spend $250 in groceries!  If you remember (or read the whole post), that’s what I used to spend per week.  That’s a significant savings!!  You can totally save this much, I promise!  It just takes some effort, some sacrifice, and some time.

How do you plan your grocery budget?  I’m still new to this and would love additional tips and suggestions!!  Happy Planning!

Resurrected!

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My squash plant is blooming again!! I think it is trying very hard to stay alive after what appeared to be sure death.

Any ideas for how to keep it healthy? Still unsure what happened to it – not enough support or some kind of pest?

As a newbie, your suggestions are greatly appreciated!