Thursday, February 14, 2008

Circle Letters

Growing up, before the age of home computers and easy access to emails, I used to love going to the mailbox and finding a letter from a pen pal or friend. I often saved those letters to read over and over, especially those written by people who did not often send mail. I remember my Grandma saying how she enjoyed getting phone calls from friends and family, but she loved the cards and letters so much more. The older I get, the more I miss those trips to the mailbox.

I am very blessed. I found a couple of groups of women with similar faith/beliefs as ours that also enjoy the pen pal & circle letter writing. I have been a part of these groups for a couple of years now and enjoy it very much. Sometimes the circle letters are a "general chat" type of topic where we simply write about the going-ons in our homes, sometimes they have a specific topic that we discuss in our letters.

A circle letter (aka round robin) is a letter exchange where a topic is assigned and the ladies sign up if they choose to participate. The person organizing teh circle letter writes down everyone's name & address and sends the information along with her letter introducing the topic. The letter is sent to the next person on the list. Each participant recieves the packet of letters in turn, reading the enclosed letters and adding one of their own before sending the packet on to the next person. The last person on the list sends the pakcet to the person who started the circle letter. This packet of letters will make it's circle rounds as many times as the participants want to participate in. Each time they receive the packet, they read the enclosed letters, remove their old letter & add a new one.

There is a wonderful book called "The Amish Circle Quilt" that is based on a circle letter that a group of Amish women sent among their group. Each time they sent the packet of letters, each woman would include a quilt block pattern that represented something that happened in they or their famiy's lives the week that she received the circle letter. The book is a wonderful read. It gives you a glimpse into the daily lives of these Amish women.

In a time when technology has become so common place in our lives, it is a joy to take the time to get out the pen and paper and write a letter. Receiving the letters are a blessing also. Take a moment and write a little note in a card or a letter and surprise someone in your life with it in their mailbox. It will brighten their day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Frugal Pantry Ideas

It is amazing how much is spent each month in a grocery store.  Years ago, when my husband & I were both working and before having our daughter, we spent alot of our income towards groceries.  Today, I am able to spend much less than our previous monthly grocery budget to feed the 3 of us.  Once our vegetable garden is producing this spring, I will be able to cut the grocery bills back even further.  Today, I spend no more than $150 a month on groceries for a family of 3.  Here are some ideas of how we do it. 
First, consider learning how to home-can your foods.  Canning is a very safe and easy way to preserve your foods.  There are 2 basic types of canner: waterbath and pressure canner.  Waterbath is a very large kettle used to boil the jars of fruit or tomatoes (high acid foods) in water to seal the jars.  A pressure canner is used for all other vegetables and meat.  The pressure canners made today are very safe and easy to use.
Stop buying convenience foods.  This is by far the biggest savings you will experience in your budget.  Convenience foods are the frozen dinners, boxed & canned foods that you simply heat up or add a couple of ingredients to before cooking.  Most, if not all, of these foods can be made from scratch at a much lower cost than their store-bought counterparts.  You also have the advantage of knowing exactly what ingredients are in the homemade versions.  There are countless books and websites with recipes available.  The most commonn search terms that you can use to find the recipes are "once a month cooking" or "make your own mixes".  I have been making our own mixes and convenience foods for 2 years now and we love them.  In a single afternoon, you can make a large quantity of a variety of meals.  Some of our favorite recipes include homemade granola, homemade "Hamburger Skillet meals", various cake & brownie mixes, flavored rice, baking mixes, pasta and flavored oatmeal packets.
A process that I do quite often with ground meats is to cook up bulk amounts at a time.  I will brown up to 5 pounds of ground meat with some chopped onions, bell peppers, and garlic.  Drain it thoroughly & let it cool.  Once it has cooled enough, I package the meat up in pint or quart size freezer bags.  These are then stored in the freezer until I need them for my recipes later on.  Other ideas for ground meat are: meatloaf, burger patties, and meatballs.  The meatballs can be prebaked before freezing so that you can toss the thawed meatballs into your soups and sauces later on.  Bulk packages of stew meat are great to precook for use in soups and stews.  If I plan to freeze them, I sometimes add the chopped onion and bell peppers. 
Homemade soups and stews are a wonderful and easy addition to your pantry.  I make a double or triple size batch of the recipes, then can the extra in jars for later.  Joe takes pint jars of the home canned meals with him for his lunches.  Quart size jars are kept in our pantry for family meals.  Nearly every soup recipe that I make can be home canned.  The only alteration that I make is to not add rice or pasta until I am ready to cook the soup for a meal.  This prevents the rice & pasta from being over-cooked.  If you don't feel comfortable with canning your soups and stews, try putting them in freezer containers and freezing them for later.
Many casseroles and lazagne can be preassembled, then frozen for a quick meal.  Line a baking pan with foil, then assemble the casserole or lazagne.  Once assembled, bake the casserole as usual, let cool then cover the casserole with foil and freeze.  After it has frozen solid, you can remove the foil wrapped casserole from the pan & wrap with butcherwrap.  Label the casserole and freeze.  To use the casserole later on, simply unwrap the butcherwrap paper and place the casserole back into the pan you froze it in.  Bake at 350* F. for about 1 hour or until heated through.  You can do the same with an unbaked casserole, but may have to lengthen the baking time accordingly if you put a frozen casserole in the oven. 
For your slow cooker, cookbooks such as the "Fix It and Forget It"  series of books have easy and inexpensive recipes.  Most do not require much effort yet are very flavorful and simple to prepare.  Having precooked and seasoned meat in your freezer makes the recipes even easier!
Instead of buying the jars of fresh or frozen chopped/minced onions, do them up in bulk at home.  Buy a bag of onions and then slice, chop or mince them into the size that you need most often for your recipes.  Once cut up, you can freeze these in containers and they will last several months.  I have chopped up onions and kept them in a container in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. 
Buy your most often used fresh produce in season, then freeze or home can it for later.  Through the internet or books, you can easily find charts and information on how to freeze, dehydrate, or home can produce.  One favorite that we use often is bell peppers.  They are pricey when not in season, but during the summer you can find them at a low cost through Farmer's Markets or produce stands.  Even better, grow your own if you have space for a garden.
If you find that you buy the refrigerated cookie doughs on a regular basis, consider making your own.   Mix up your favorite cookie recipes, then working on waxed paper, form the dough into "logs".  Wrap completely with waxed paper to prevent the dough from drying out.  Place the logs of dough into gallon sized freezer bags and label.  These are good for up to 3 months in your freezer.  To use, simply thaw one of the logs just enough to make slicing easier, then slice and bake as usual.  If you want the simple pre-cut type of refrigerated cookie dough found in stores, just line a 8" x 8" pan with waxed paper then spread the dough about 1 inch thick in the pan.  Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.   Take the dough out of the pan and cut the dough into squares.  Wrap the dough in waxed paper and place into a gallon size freezer bag.  Label and freeze for up to 3 months.  Whether you make the slice & bake type or the precut squares, the cookies are usually baked at 350*F. for 10-12 minutes or until done.
There are many other easy recipes and ways to save money in your pantry.  Simple things like making out a shopping list and sticking to it or making sure to eat a good meal before you shop can help tremendously.  Shopping on a full stomach makes impulse buying a rare occurance!  Some families, like ours, keeps a pantry inventory so that we know exactly what we have and what we need which in turn prevents buying too much of one thing and not enough of another.  Some families also go to the steps of making out a weekly or monthly menu, then plan their shopping around teh ingredients needed to make those meals.
One of my methods is to keep my grocery receipts for 1 month.  I made up a shopping list using those receipts as a starting point.  When I was using all-purpose flour for all of my baking, I found that I went through 25 pounds of flour each month.  This included all the baking (breads, cookies, etc.) and my pasta.  I then started shopping once a month and would buy the large 25 lb. bags of flour.  Now, I do the same with the wheat that I buy for making my own flour.  When I open a new bucket of wheat, I mark the date in my notebook.  I then track how long it takes me to use that 25 lbs. of wheat.  This tells me how much wheat I use over a period of 6 months, which is how often I order it from the farm.
Planning and maintaining a frugal pantry takes abit of extra work to get it set up.  Once you get started though and you see the savings that it brings to your budget, you will hopefully feel encouraged to continue. Next time, I will talk about our family garden plans and how it will also change our grocery bill tremendously.  Just a hint.....imagine going to the grocery store for food supplies once a year and spending less than you would in a normal month on groceries!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Welcome to my Blog

Welcome to my new blog.  Our family has a small homestead that we are setting up to become self-reliant.  My Beloved husband, Joe, is a truck driver and travels from coast to coast.  I am a SAHM and look after the homestead.  We have a 2 year old daughter and are expecting our second child, a boy, this spring.
I am very old fashioned and love it.  I follow the practice of Christian headcovering and modest dress.  We are striving to live a more simple and "plain" lifestyle.  It is a harder life in respects to the amount of physical work that you have to do, but the rewards are wonderful!  It is such a blessing to go into the pantry and see jars of home canned foods that you raised in your own garden. 
Becoming self-reliant has been a blessing in other ways also.  One way is through the ability to weather the storms that come along.  While people in the city were having a hard time with power outages and all the difficulties that bring, we were comfortable in our home.  I simply put refrigerated items in totes on the back porch where they were able to stay cold. The wood stove and wood cookstove provided our heat and method for meal preparations.  Our lighting was provided by the oil lamps and candles in large jars.  In our pantry, we had home canned soups, stews, and other meals that were fast & easy to prepare.  What a blessing to not have to worry as many did in the city.
I love sewing, quilting, gardening, soap making, cooking & baking, photography & scrapbooking.  I am gradually sewing our family's clothing.  Some of the patterns are from an online company, Buckaroo Bobbins, which carries the historically accurate old west style of clothing.  Our daughter's clothing consists of dresses with pinafores or jumpers with a top.  She wears some type of legging or pantalette with her outfits for additional warmth and modesty.  My own clothing mainly consists of a top with jumper or a cape dress, both of which provide a "double cover".  At this point, I have patterns for everything we each wear with the exception of summer weight socks.  All outer and under clothing can now be handmade.  I am very blessed with a husband who is very supportive of my doing this and enjoys seeing us wear the handmade clothing.
My current project is 2 crib size quilts.  One is a Sunbonnet Sue quilt for our daughter's bed.  The second is an Overall Bill quilt for our new baby.  I am having fun stitching together the applique blocks for these quilts.  Both patterns are easy and a great way to use up scraps of fabric from other sewing projects.  When I have them finished, I will post pictures of them.
In future blogs, I will be sharing about our days and also recipes and projects that I am working on. 
The Lord's blessings be with you.
Prairie Mom