July 2009

photo by Hey Paul

photo by Hey Paul

I love popcorn. I could eat it several times a week in all its buttery, crunchy, salty glory. It’s low in fat (at least without the butter,) high in fiber, and I can eat what feels like a decadent amount because of its natural volume. I’m a popcorn purist, so it’s just a little butter and salt for me, thank you very much.

My children love it too. I carefully dole out their servings, trying to be generous when I really want to hoard it all to myself.

I used to buy boxes of microwave popcorn, 3 or 6 to a package, and ration it out over the course of a week or two. I bought the low fat or plain because the butter flavor tasted like wax, so I would add my own.

I remember hearing about a guy who loved popcorn even more than me. He would hold the popped popcorn bag to his nose and inhale the freshly popped popcorn aroma. Unfortunately it made him sick. He was also inhaling a chemical called diacetyl, which caused “popcorn worker’s lung.”

Yikes! Turns out, people who had worked in food flavoring or microwave popcorn factories got a lethal, irreversible lung disease just by doing their jobs. It makes me feel ill for ever buying these products! In response to consumer outcry, popcorn makers announced they were reducing the levels of diacetyl.

Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? As a popcorn lover addict, I was on the hunt for something better. Air-popped never tasted as crunchy to me, and I ruined my fair share of pans waiting too long for that last kernel to pop. So when I found a way to pop it in the microwave in less than 2 minutes, it changed my life.

 How to make your own microwave popcorn

Making your own microwave popcorn is convenient and you avoid any strange chemicals. You also eliminate the additional packaging – whiteboard outer box, inner plastic wrap – in packaged microwave popcorn. One big bag of popcorn seeds goes a long, long way, so you can splurge on organic or specialty and still spend less than the prepackaged microwave kind.

You need:

  • Regular, bulk popcorn seeds
  • A package of paper lunch bags
  • Oil

Scoop ¼ cup of popcorn seeds into a paper lunch bag. Add ½ tsp of vegetable oil. Fold the paper bag closed, and fold again. (I use about a ½ inch to an inch fold.) Place in the microwave. Cook for 1:45 MORE OR LESS depending on your microwave. You’ll want to watch it carefully until you figure out the best cooking time. Remove when pops are more than 1 second apart.

Pour into bowl, salt and butter as desired. Enjoy!

I don’t recommend reusing the bag. I believe it is a fire hazard, as is any microwave popcorn bag if you leave it unattended.

photo by love・janine

photo by love・janine

Eat less meat. Have you heard that before? It sounds simple, but eating habits can be hard to change.
Although I switched to grass-fed beef, chicken, and pork, I also wanted to reduce my family’s serving sizes of meat, and use what we do buy more wisely. USDA guidelines, (which are politically motivated in many ways,)  recommend these serving sizes for our daily requirement of meat, beans, eggs, and nuts: children should have 5 ounces, women should have 6 ounces, and men should have 7 ounces per DAY. Kind of puts those restaurant portions into perspective.
Eating less meat is better for the environment, better for our health, and better for our budget. To stretch our food budget and keep our serving sizes down, here are some tricks I have learned.



  • Start by going without meat just one day a week. I found that it was an easy change for my family to accept, and I got some practice with vegetarian recipes everyone could enjoy. Currently we eat vegetarian dinners 2-3 times a week.
  • I added smoked paprika to a tomato marinara and it tasted as though it were meat based! You can also add it to cooked beans. I saw it here  first, but was inspired to try it after I had a fabulous smoked tomato sauce at the Bluefin Bay Resort.

Ground Beef

  • Add minced onion to ground beef and patties.
  • Patty 4 burgers for each pound of beef.
  • Add lots of vegetable fixin’s – in season tomatoes, lettuce, onion on a good crusty roll fills out the burger so you feel satisfied with one.
  • Make a dimple in the top of a thick burger with your thumb before grilling so grass-fed beef doesn’t ball up, and be careful not to overcook. (My husband is tired of hearing me yell that out the screen door.)
  • Add extra veggies to sauce. My brother-in-law’s extra special marinara sauce cooked from scratch starts with carrots, celery, and onions sautéed in butter. (Hmm..am I supposed to share that?) Add mushrooms, diced tomatoes, zucchini… Fatten up that sauce!
  • For tex-mex like tacos or burritos, add pinto beans or tomatoes to reduce the amount of beef and boost the seasoning.

Fajitas, stir fry, kabobs

  • Double the onions, peppers, broccoli, zucchini…You get the idea.

Lunch meat

  • A good deli brand without fillers, like Boar’s Head, can be sliced extra thin, so a ½ lb. goes a long way.
    I slice each large round piece of ham from Applegate Farms in half for twice the sandwiches.


  • Cut bacon slices in half before you cook – it fits better in the pan and feels like you get twice as much! In my family, we count them out ‘cause everyone wants their fair share!
  • Use bacon crumbled over pasta dishes – even a small amount of bacon satisfies meat eaters.


  • Spread pepperoni slices around on pizza, and then add some chopped pepperoni to add flavor with less. I like Organic Prairie pepperoni, and small amounts add spice to sandwiches.
  • We cut pizzas into square pieces instead of pie slice. It helps me eat less, even when I crave just one more piece.


  • Boost the sides – use lots of potatoes, carrots and onions.
  • Add chopped peppers or tomatoes to leftover meat for barbecue sandwiches.


  • Pick that leftover free range chicken clean to the bone! If one isn’t enough, freeze cooked meat until you have enough left over. I toss the leftover chicken, bones and all, in a bag in the freezer until I have enough to use for another meal.
  • Dice and shred it finely and add it to chicken lasagna or enchiladas.
  • Chicken stock – Boil the bones to make stock for soups. Full disclosure: I haven’t mastered a clear stock yet! I will figure this out before fall!

What are your tips to stretch your meat budget? And can you tell me how to make a good chicken stock?

photo by Jem Stone

photo by Jem Stone

Here’s something fun for the kids today: a homemade playdough recipe using common food ingredients. It’s technically edible, although not recommended due to a high salt content.

My friend Amy swears by this recipe, and I watched her whip it up in minutes while her children waited, rolling pins and cookie cutters in hand. It’s quick, inexpensive, and you probably have everything you need in your cupboard, (except for cream of tartar, which I only use in baking, but you can find it with the spices in any grocery store.)

It makes a huge batch. You can divide it up amongst the children, who can each pick their own color, and the cream of tartar keeps the playdough soft and pliable for them to enjoy during many a rainy day or play time while mom chops vegetables.

Best Ever Playdough

2 cups flour
1 cup salt
2 cups water
1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons of cream of tartar
Food coloring of your choice

Mix all ingredients in saucepan until soft. Heat on low, mixing with spatula until stiff. Remove, divide if desired, and knead in color. Store in an airtight container.


Coming up next week…ways to eat less meat.


Sometimes I feel a little like Phoebe from “Friends,” where even though she doesn’t like mass-produced items, she really loves the apothecary table Rachel buys from Pottery Barn.

Collections of glass bottles, furniture with patina, vintage-inspired, cozy rooms. I know it’s mass-produced, but I love the look. I just have a hard time buying a brand new item that has been designed to look old. Anyone else remember the Seinfeld episode with the old phone? They were so good with product placements!

I’ve discovered that Appleton has an amazing secondhand market, where I’ve found some Pottery Barn-inspired treasures, saved some money, reused perfectly good items, and spent money at stores committed to good causes. Of course, like Phoebe, sometimes you gotta go for the name brand. If no other window sheers will do, go ahead and get the ones you love.

Their beautifully photographed rooms always feature collections, some of which are for sale, like apothecary jars or silver frames. Here are some of mine.

DSC05853Glass bottles
I love collecting something that only sets me back 50 cents to a dollar whenever I find one. I use them all over the house to store things like scrapbook supplies, bath salts, or pretty rocks my children find on walks.




DSC05854Mirror collage

I already had the oval mirror, but I found the rest of the mirrors on a few trips to St. Vincent de Paul. The most expensive one was $2.50. I’m still on the hunt for a different oval, and I have a crazy plan to do something similar with frames.




I found this “set” of five at Goodwill. I love the odd number. You could do the same with glass candlesticks.





DSC05851 Then there’s those things that look old…I love rustic, worn items, like this copper still, which I think was $30 at an antique mall. I was giddy when I saw a similar log holder in the catalog for over $200. (I think we need to add some logs!)




 Can’t fake it, make it

DSC05798 Spray paint transforms just about anything. Some spray paint, beads from Christmas ornaments, and wedding decorations turned an unwanted brass fixture into a chandelier for my daughter.



I was going to write about something else, but I’ve been obsessing about thrift shops and Pottery Barn ever since I read this post from Melissa @ the Inspired Room. And for more “hawt” ideas using Goodwill finds, check out Thrifty Décor Chick.

How about you? Have any more favorite knock-offs from the thrift shop?

photo by chispita_666

photo by chispita_666

Summer’s vegetables are here! I’m scrambling to add fresh garlic scapes, sugar snap peas, and baby chard to our daily meals before the next box from our CSA arrives.

Ideally, I would sip from a glass of fine wine as I sauté the chard until just tender and bright. In reality, there are the two children, straddling that fine line between too much snacking and hungry for dinner, asking for legos to be broken apart and playdough to be rolled and flattened. In particular, my 2 ½ year old daughter is transitioning from the age of taking an afternoon nap and waking up crabby; to not taking a nap and remaining crabby from 3 o’clock until the aforementioned dinner. At our house, I call the time before dinner “the witching hour.”

But dinner is important to me, to have a time where we sit down as a family, share each other’s day, and enjoy a home cooked meal together. Prep time is much easier with the proper tools, so here are my favorites.

  • A sharp knife
    I’ve heard chefs’ most prized possession is their knife, but I never experienced how much this matters until I cooked at my brother-in-law’s house, using his quality knives. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. It slices! It dices! I could cut vegetables easier, faster and safer, and it made prep work a breeze.
    Now I have a new Santoku knife. It’s inexpensive but sharp, and that alone makes a huge difference. I never add it to the dishwasher to maintain its sharp edge.
  • Multiple cutting boards
    I have three large and three small cutting boards. They store flat, fit easily in the dishwasher, and allow me to keep on chopping.
  • Salad spinner
    My CSA farmer does a bit of prewashing, but the greens still hold a considerable amount of dirt. The salad spinner consists of a colander and bowl, and makes quick work of washing and drying greens. It’s also more earth-friendly than blotting dry with paper towels.
  • Food chopper
    I like my hand-held food chopper when I have a lot of chopping to do. It’s from Pampered Chef, with a plunger handle and Z-shaped blade. Unlike a food processor, it works right on the cutting board so there’s no bowl to clean, and it works under your own power. It’s especially nice for chopping and mincing onions.
  • Sink or dishpan full of soapy water
    If I have a lot of clean-up, I fill one side of my sink with hot soapy water. When I finish with a tool, I simply slide it in. By the time dinner is done, the tools will have practically cleaned themselves, and it uses less water than washing each of them individually.

What are some of your favorite time-saving tools?


photo by Jeff Keen

photo by Jeff Keen

I have a confession to make.

  I am not a food purist.

 After I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, my appetite was shot. I was obsessed with food ingredients and genetically-modified crops. When I read Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope, I stopped eating meat for a month. My husband began drooling over sausage commercials. I wanted to save the world; but first, I had to feed my family.

  •  Should I buy the lower-priced organic meat that is 2 hours away, or the local grass-fed meat?
  • Should I buy the large jar of unsweetened applesauce with no high fructose corn syrup that will keep for a month, or out-of-season organic apples that could go bad?
  • What if my friend makes a sandwich for me? Should I ask her where the meat came from, and if it’s ethically-raised? Do I want to be THAT person?
  • Can I afford the organic dairy products, or should I get the locally produced rBGH-free?
  • If we pack a meal for the car in ziplock baggies, is that better for the environment than dinner at McDonald’s?
  • Is it better to serve my children organic frozen vegetables I know they will eat, or chance wasting the bok choi they hated from our CSA?

 I don’t have it all figured out for myself, and I certainly can’t tell you what’s best for you.

 I can tell you this: I will try to give you meal ideas that are sustainable, organic, local, and ethical. Not everything will satisfy all four, because I insist they also be affordable and practical. Those are two vital missing pieces from the sustainable food discussion. If it were cheap and easy, everyone would do it, right? I do what I can, and keep trying to improve.

 I posted a comment recently on a blog, where I got schooled on my imperfect solution to a boxed macaroni meal. It was quick, used less packaging, added fresh cheese and butter instead of powdered cheese, and added real, if frozen, vegetables. I wish I would have mentioned the noodles were locally produced with two, real food ingredients, the cheese and butter were hormone free, and the vegetables were organic. But no matter, others quickly pointed out that the vegetables weren’t local or seasonal.

 They were right. I could do better. We can all do better, but I hope that doesn’t stop us from doing what we can.


photo by Kathy Maister

photo by Kathy Maister

You forgot to take something out of the freezer.

Your husband forgot to buy one key ingredient for dinner.

You had a meeting at school that you overlooked.

It’s just you and the kids tonight.

Or you just don’t feel like cooking. In any case, you need a fallback meal.

A fallback meal is dinner you can get on the table with a minimum of prep, ingredients you have, and your kids will eat. It’s not fancy, but it works, and it keeps you out of the drive-thru lane. Here are some of mine:

  • Grilled cheese
    Add ham or tomato, if you have it, or heat up a side of soup. My friend Joyce calls it “soup & sandwich night.”
  • Frozen waffles
    We make extra on weekends and freeze. Pop in the toaster just like the ones in the box.
  • Spaghetti and meat sauce
    I probably make this once a week, so it’s mindless. I use ½ lb. of ground beef (I don’t even thaw first, just cover and cook on lower heat and scrape it off as it browns,) and Newman’s Own Cabernet Marinara. Sometimes I double the sauce and freeze it for next time.
  • Bean burritos
    One can of refried beans, tortillas, and sprinkle of shredded cheese.
  • Buttered noodles
    If you have them, add some frozen vegetables to the last 5 minutes of cooking and toss with a bit of garlic salt.
  • English muffin, bagel, or tortilla pizzas
    Depends on what we have on hand. Toast in the toaster oven with pizza sauce and shredded cheese.

Serve with a side of fruit or yogurt, and dinner is done!

What are some of your fallback meals?

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