Wednesday, July 27, 2016

My 1st Year of Packing Lunch

Before Orson started Pre-K, I worried about packing lunches for him everyday. I bought a lot of cute bento supplies & practiced adding a few cute touches... and made a few complex bentos, just for fun. Unfortunately Orson was not really excited about the intricate lunches, and often would not eat them. When we learned his Pre-K provided lunch, I was a little bummed, but relieved too.

The next year he started Kindergarten, and I had to prepare again. After much debate I bought a set of Easy Lunch Boxes, because I liked that they have a few divided sections but only one lid for the whole box. (My son really loves that too.) I did have a hard time finding a lunchbag to fit them however, and really had to cram it into a standard size bag. The big box also left no room to add a water bottle, and I had to search forever for something narrow to fit in there.... And then it leaked several times and soaked everything in his bookbag, so I had to hunt again! (I finally found some small bottles from apple juice that fit OK, but by the end of the year I tried putting it in his bookbag pocket instead. Of course he forgot to grab it for lunch it every time.)

Unfortunately the standard lunchbags tip the Easy Lunch Box on its side, so putting cute bento-style details are pretty much out of the question because they would be instantly up-ended. Maybe one year I can find a lunch box with a handle on the top, but for now I'm getting two young kids ready in the morning and don't know that I'd have time to try anything creative anyway!

Once I had my lunchbox/bag situation figured out, it was time to plan the food! I started by making a list of everything I could think of that Orson will eat. Then I scoured some lists of lunchbox ideas, and added new ones to my list. I was planning on having him buy lunch twice a week, so I looked at the school lunch calendar and picked out two school lunches each week that he'd like, then filled in the calendar the rest of the way with lunches I would make.

The school cafeteria is on a three week rotation of lunches, and considering there are not *that* many things a 5 year old will eat, that ended up being perfect for my lunches as well. Bringing lunch three times a week, that means I needed 9 ideas for lunches to pack. I planned the main meal and veggie, but then would add whatever fruits we had on hand for the 3rd section. I was also pretty flexible with the schedule, rearranging meals if needed, or swapping something out if I was missing an ingredient.

So, here are the 9 lunches I made throughout the year!

Grilled cheese with corn ~

Grilled cheese, apples, & corn

Pigs in a blanket with roasted kale (seaweed snacks pictured) ~ I started out buying cocktail sausages, but they are pricey and I never needed the full pack. After a few months I tried cutting up hot dogs instead, and 1/3 of a hot dog cut in half lengthwise work perfectly! I also stopped buying crescent roll dough and started thawing out 1 frozen Grand biscuit cut in 1/8ths. I hardly ever have extra kale on hand and usually ended up adding the seaweed snacks he loves instead. Kids love those things!

Pigs in a blanket, seaweek, & pineapple

Fish sticks with green peas ~ I found the little container for the ketchup next to the salad dressings at our grocery store! Perfect fit.

Fish sticks, apples, & green 

Sandwich on a Stick ~ Bread, lunchmeat, cucumbers, and mini tomatoes loaded onto skewers. A fun twist on a sandwich! If you want to add cheese slices, I found that it works best to cut a hole in the cheese slice with a straw first, or else the skewer hole cracks the cheese and it falls apart. I love that you can use pretty much any leftover bread (like hamburger or hot dog rolls) for these! He won't touch the cherry tomatoes, but I can't resist adding them.

Sandwich on a stick, rice krispies, & pineapple

Mini biscuit pizzas with carrots & dip (roasted kale pictured) ~ 

Mini pizzas, apples, & roasted kale

Rice balls with spinach goma-ae (seaweed snacks pictured) ~ At the start of the year, I made sushi rolls (with cooked imitation crab), but Orson got sick one day after eating them & then was afraid to eat them after that. I switched to stuffed rice balls, which is probably the most complex lunch on the rotation, but if you have the sushi rice & filling made ahead of time and frozen, each ball only takes a few minutes. I quickly learned not to try to do it all in the morning! That goma-ae recipe is a little different than mine, but I don't have mine written up yet. It also freezes well, I just ran out!

Stuffed rice balls, seaweed, & veggie chips

PBJ & seaweed snacks

PBJ, seaweed snacks, & apples

Mini sandwiches with cukes ~ Hawaiian rolls with lunchmeat, cheese, and mayo. Later in the year he had me start adding ketchup & mustard too.

Mini sandwiches, cukes, & chips

Tofuniku with edamame ~ Another Japanese recipe my son loves! The meat is simmered in a sweet sauce then served over rice. This is another one where I make a big batch and then freeze small servings for his lunches. I always try to keep frozen rice in the freezer too, and it tastes just like fresh rice when you reheat it.

Tofuniku, edamame, & pears

These pictures were all taken at the end of the year, and I packed in a few more sweets & chips than I normally would. Orson stopped eating pears, peaches, and oranges this year, so I'm having a hard time coming up with fruits for him! 

The Easy Lunch Boxes are not leak-proof, so any time I had something liquidy, I tried to drain it off as good as I could and then tucked a paper towel along the bottom edge of the box ~ 

Paper towel to catch drips in lunchbox

This worked pretty well, but the pineapple often leaked a bit and made his lunch box smell horrible! I started throwing his lunchbag in with our towel laundry (which soak in ammonia before washing). It does a great job of killing the smell. 

This year his 3-year-old sister starts 2 day preschool and will need to bring her lunch too. Unfortunately she hardly eats anything, and her school is nut free (no PBJs), so I have no idea what I'll pack for her! It's time to pull out the calendar and start planning again!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Rebate Apps & Coupons - 1 Month of Freebies

Last month I told you about how I started using a few rebate apps, which basically give you back money after you shop when you buy certain items - kind of like a coupon you use afterward. Even better, you can use the rebates on top of sales or coupons. Over the last month I've realized sales, coupons, and rebate apps are not that amazing on their own, but if you pair them together you can get stuff super cheap, even free! I've always loved a good puzzle, so I've been having fun looking for the best combinations.

Coupons ~

I've never been very good at coupons. I always go through the newspaper (and the Kroger digital coupons) and just clip the coupons for things we often buy. But then I either leave them at home, or the generic brand is cheaper, or I get all the way up to the register & forget to use them. I'm pretty terrible at keeping up with them, but seeing how you can match them up to get much lower deals has got me super motivated to use them now!

The best coupons are usually the ones from the newspaper, but you can also find tons of printable coupons on (Unfortunately there is no search, but chose "Brands" from the category drop down menu & you can see the coupons for each brand.) Printable coupons are especially nice when you are just starting out & don't have a lot on hand. Now I still clip my normal coupons for stuff we buy a lot, but I also clip anything that I wouldn't mind getting for free and sort those alphabetically so I can quickly check different brands when I see a sale or rebate.

My first two weeks I had no idea what I was doing, but I did notice a few coupon/rebate 'match-ups' and got all of this for free (that's a 3 pk. of bar soap, but my husband snatched one already, haha) ~

Coupon Freebies - Week 1&2

Couponing Sites ~

After that I started looking around for sites that posted lots of match-up deal ideas. My favorite two places to look are Krazy Coupon Lady's freebies category and under $1. Souther Savers posts similar weekly list for grocery store deals here (she calls them "Top Acorn Deals" because she marks the best deals on her site with a little acorn icon). She also posts some of the top pharmacy deals here.

By week 3 I was finding lots of good freebies this way, and finally braved some of the pharmacy deals I'd been passing over before. I'll tell you about that next!

Coupon Freebies - Week 3

I couldn't resist going back for $25 of free nail polish ~

Coupon Freebies - Week 3

Pharmacies ~

I've always ignored the CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens flyers before, but if you look close you can find some unbelievable deals. I've found most of my freebies there! On lots of items you can earn 'bucks' or 'points', which you can either spend right away or on your next trip. They are also always running $5 off $15 type sales (that's the total before coupons), and they print out or email you similar coupons, both of which you can use together. Add some newspaper/printable coupons on top of those, and prices get crazy low. I recently found an awesome site where you can preview the pharmacy sales flyers 2-3 weeks in advance!

Two weeks ago the Proctor & Gamble coupon insert came out, and all three stores were running $10 off $30 worth of P&G stuff so you could match coupons with the sale. I got $36 worth of stuff for $8 (which is the cost of the mascara + the 20 oz., so I'm counting the rest as freebies!).

Coupon Freebies - Week 4

One problem with pharmacy deals and rebate apps is that you have to spend some money up front to get the money back later. This is rough when you are starting out! I figured out deals at both of the other pharmacies where I could have gotten another $30 worth of stuff for free, but it would have temporarily tied up $10-17 in reward bucks per store. Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, but my business has been super slow lately, so we're really having to watch what we spend.

But the big problem with pharmacies is that each of them have different reward bucks/points programs with different rules to remember, and sometimes more than one program at the same store! I'd avoided pharmacy deals before because I didn't know how they worked, and they really can be confusing! I keep a post-it with each store's guidelines written down so I can check them before I shop. If you go to either of those couponing sites I linked above, you can find info on how each pharmacy works, or I will probably do a post about them soon. If you don't want to bother dealing with the fine print, I'd stick to CVS, which is very straight forward with no weird rules.

Coupon Freebies - Week 5

Last week we were on vacation, so I didn't have much time to go shopping for deals, but I did manage to snag some nice snacks for the road trip before we left!

Coupon Freebies - Week 5

Extras ~ 

One thing you've probably noticed is that you can get tons of shampoo, body wash, and toothpaste for free. Way more than you could ever use! I've started a 'freebie box' that my friends can pick out goodies from, and I'm hoping to donate extras to a food pantry or shelter. I've also seen some crazy low prices for diapers (like $2 or even $.50 a pack!), but unfortunately we *just* potty trained our youngest. Wish I'd known about these deals 6 years ago!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Coconut Cabbage (99 calories)

Have you ever come across a recipe picture that looks so tasty, but when you glance over the ingredient list, it's not what you imagined at all? And then you decide to make the recipe you *thought* it was? I know I've done it a few times, and that is how this recipe came about.

I'm glad I gave it a try, because the coconut, onion, and cabbage work together so well, and this simple side dish comes together quickly. The perfect veggie side for an Asian meal! I wasn't expecting it to be too healthy because of the high-calorie coconut, so I was excited to see that each serving is just under 100 calories.

Coconut Cabbage, 1 (99 calories)

(For those of you counting calories, I've added the amount for each ingredient so you can easily make tweaks without having to re-calculate everything. Anything marked with an asterisk* may vary based on what you buy, so make sure to compare your label.)

Coconut Cabbage

  • 1/2 Tbsp. vegetable oil (60)
  • 1 cup onion, sliced (60)

  • 1) In a large pan or wok, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  • 1/3 cup shredded coconut (sweetenend, 186*)
  • 1 tsp. grated ginger (1)
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic (0)

  • 2) Add the coconut, ginger, & garlic and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.

  • 4 cups shredded green cabbage (80)
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce (10)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt (0)

  • 3) Add the cabbage, soy sauce, and salt. Cook until cabbage is wilted, about 2-3 minutes. Serves 4.

    Calories - 99 for 1/4

    Coconut Cabbage, 2 (99 calories)