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Dear Carissa – The inaugural edition!

This is the first post in the “Dear Carissa” series… wherein you (brilliant Pretty/Hungry readers) send in your questions about cooking, budgeting, wellness, and LIFE in general, and I answer them!  I do not claim to have the “right” answers to any of these questions, mind you, these are merely my answers.  This series began as a response to some of the repeated inquiries I have received through blog comments, e-mail, and Facebook.  I figured that since some of the same questions were coming through from multiple readers, it might benefit everyone for me to write my answers in one place.  If you enjoy this series, let me know whether you’d like to see it become a regular feature on the Pretty/Hungry blog!

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Dear Carissa - Blog series for cooking questions, budget questions, and LIFE questions!  |  prettyhungryblog.com

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Welcome to the first installment of “Dear Carissa”!  Wow, I reeeeally enjoyed reading through your questions and answering them!  I’m convinced I have the best readers ever.  You guys are incredibly thoughtful, resourceful, and FUN… and I love you.  Anyway, if you should ever have a question you’d like to send my way, you can do so by commenting on any Pretty/Hungry post, messaging me through Facebook, tweeting at me (@PrettyHungryGrl), or using this Contact Form.  No question is off-limits!  (Hehe, I’m super nosy so that kind of green light would rock my world!)

Alrighty, without further ado… let’s get to the meat of the matter and start answering those questions!

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1) Do you eat many processed foods?  We try to shop the “perimeter” of the grocery store (for health reasons) but that can get so expensive!

I adore the idea of eating the freshest, most ethically grown/raised/traded, least-processed, most pesticide-free food available.  I’m certain that is the way God originally intended for our food to be, and there is no question that fresh, un-processed, organic food tastes the best!  But we no longer live in the Garden of Eden and the effects of this fallen world can be seen everywhere… even in our food!  The reality for our family (and most families world-wide) is that attempting to eat only perfectly “clean” foods would put a huge burden on us (both financially and time/energy-wise.)  So I believe in a balance of doing one’s best and “cutting oneself a break” when it comes to this topic.  Buy organic/un-processed foods or grow your own where it matters most (like with soft berries for instance), and Hakuna Matata with the rest!  The physical health of your family is hugely important, but we are also called toward good financial stewardship, so each person has to draw that line somewhere.

That said, I try not to consume food additives that ample research has shown to be harmful.  For instance, trans fats (any oil on an ingredient label that is “partially hydrogenated”) are a giant NO-NO in my diet.  Which, most unfortunately, nixes Girl Scout cookies.  (Side note: Get it together, Girl Scouts Corporate Headquarters!  Trans fats are terrible!)   Another no-no for me is artificial sweetener of any kind.  I prefer moderate portions of the real thing or natural sweeteners like Stevia.

And as for shopping the “perimeter” of the store, that’s a great start… but don’t neglect those frozen aisles!  They are a wealth of healthy ingredients!  (Frozen veggies and fruits being my favorite.)  Not only are they more budget-friendly than their fresh counterparts, but they last longer before spoiling and they retain their nutrients well.  Did you know that fresh produce experiences significant nutrient degradation from light and heat while it is being shipped to your grocery store?  And even more nutrient-loss occurs each day that it sits in your fridge!

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2) Do you also touch on any gluten-free, meatless, and/or vegan options?

Yes!  Lately I’ve been exploring these types of dishes more and more (though admittedly I’ve done a poor job categorizing them here for you.)  In the future I hope to add categories for each of those specific special diets, but for now, I’d recommend browsing the “Healthy” and “Meatless” tabs at the top of the Pretty/Hungry homepage.  Here are a few ideas off the top of my head that cater to more specific diet needs:

Gluten-Free:

Pineapple Coconut Muffins, Maple Pecan Granola, Quinoa Chili, Quinoa Taco Bake, Quinoa Greek Salad, Tomatillo Chicken & Corn Tortilla Lasagna, Steel-Cut Oats, Crockpot Pear Sauce, Protein-Packed Chocolate Mousse, Green Monster Smoothie, Rosemary Skewers, Spaghetti Squash with Pesto, Potato Sausage & Kale Soup, Delicious & Healthy Mashed Cauliflower, Game-Day Green Goddess Dip

Vegan:

Macadamia Butter, Maple Pecan Granola, Crockpot Pear Sauce, Protein-Packed Chocolate Mousse, Healthy Brownie in a Mug, Spaghetti Squash with Pesto, Chocolate Fudge Pie, Delicious & Healthy Mashed Cauliflower

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3) Do you grocery shop every week?  Also do you buy just what you need from week to week? Are you able to stock up on things, or are your pantry and fridge pretty bare?

I grocery shop 4x per month in order to stick to our $200 per month food budget, so that usually equals a shopping trip about once every 8 days.  And I would say 70% percent of my list is dedicated to replacing the same items week to week (eggs, milk, fruit, etc), while the other 30% is usually devoted to re-stocking certain pantry items.  (Here’s my handy list of pantry items I try to always keep on hand!)  However, I’ll specify that there’s a difference in stocking and stock-piling.  I do not stock-pile or buy in bulk when something goes on sale.  I just don’t have the weekly budget to drop a large chunk of money on a single item like that.  This style of shopping may not work as well for other families, but it has been very key in helping me stay within our budget.  In the past when I would “stock up” on bulk items because they were on sale, I found I ended up spending a lot more per shopping trip and then forgetting about those items in my pantry or freezer for months.

And yes, you would probably look at our fridge and pantry and find them laughably bare!  It has taken me awhile to get used to the decreased volume of food on hand at all times… but now I love it!  Not only am I less likely to buy something and then forget about it… but I don’t take the food we do have for granted anymore.  I also tend to do much less “mindless snacking”, because there aren’t as many options lying around to tempt me.  If I want a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the middle of the week, I have to get in a car and go buy it (with my “personal” money, mind you)… so I have to want it pretty bad if I’m going to indulge!

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4)  Does your family eat out at all during the month? Do you set a budget for it or is it rare?

Well, we have a 1-yr-old, so eating out with her is not nearly as fun as eating out was when we were child-less.  We’ve just found that eating out is usually more mess and hassle than it’s worth with a little one.  (Not to mention that I’m paying $7 for her to eat macaroni & cheese out, compared to $1 at home.)  So to answer your question, it is very rare.  However, Chris and I always budget for at least one date night per month, separate from our food budget.  On average, we set aside about $40 for those evenings, so they usually equate to a fairly decent dinner out, or a few dates at a cheaper place (Mexican for instance.)  For special occasions, we might budget more than $40.  But no… there is no “out-to-eat budget” for the entire family.  I cook at home unless we’ve been invited to an event or to someone else’s house for a meal.  That may change as our children get older, but it works well for us right now.  (And it gives Chris ample opportunities to put deposits in my love bank, because I always welcome the occasional opportunity to have a break from the kitchen… He’s good about saying “I’ll just eat a PB&J tonight, Sweets.”)

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5) I have never suffered a severe personal tragedy… thank you for sharing your grief journey with us.  How should I reach out to my sister/cousin/aunt who is grieving?  Also, are Spark of Life retreats mainly for adults or are children and teens welcome?

Thank YOU for the encouraging words!  Having the freedom to share on the blog about the personal tragedies that have hit us this year as been immensely helpful to me.  As for responding to loved ones in your own life who have experienced tragedy and are grieving, it’s important to understand that grief (even prolonged grief) is not a bad thing, and that there is no way to rush someone through it.  Likewise, there are not “right” and “wrong” ways to recover… you can’t tell another person how to go about their recovery journey (even if you’ve been through something very similar.)  All you can offer is, “[X] helped me.”

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that attempting to make a grieving person “feel better” will almost always result in frustration both for you and for them.  A better goal is to seek to make them feel “loved.”  That is a much more attainable goal for you, as you can probably think of a myriad of ways to make your special person feel loved and cared for (depending on their love language.)  But trying to make them “feel better” after a tragic loss is a pretty hopeless pursuit.  One day (by the grace of God) they will be able to move forward… but they will never “get over it”, they will never be the same person they were before tragedy struck, and they’ll never not hurt over the loss.  So give up trying to get them there and focus instead on blessing and taking care of them.  Those are the memories that will stick out to me forever after my Dad died… people extending acts of love and kindness to me.  I may have felt angry, hurt, sad, and confused… but I did not feel alone.

And Spark of Life retreats are a really powerful step toward healing, in my opinion.  The organization offers incredibly peaceful getaways entirely free of charge (except your travel to get there)… which include intensive sessions designed to help you address your grief so that you can begin (or continue) the healing process.  I highly recommend these retreats!  They are not going to try and tell you how to grieve, or how to “get over it”, or judge you for being angry, depressed, or numb.  You will be glad you chose to go!  And to answer your question, the retreats are designed for adults (single or married.)  However, I do know that “mature” adolescents have also been allowed to attend with families, so be sure to ask about it if you’d like your tween or teen to attend with you.  More information can be found at sparkoflife.org!

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6) A Cheese-Making Question:  Ok, I read your post on making homemade mozzarella and the first time I tried it, it turned out amazing!  This is the second time I’ve tried it and I’m BLOWING it somewhere… Step by step it seems to do exactly as you say it will, but the problem is at the end when I’m supposed to stretch it and work the salt in, it’s in no condition to do so.  Yours looks smoother and mine comes apart the second I try to stretch it out.  I’m using whole milk and the Junket rennet tablets AND I’m using bottled lemon juice (not straight from a lemon) so maybe one of those things is the problem…  Any suggestions?

So sorry for the frustration!  I’ve experienced similar issues and done a fair bit of research on the temperamental process of cheese-making… what you’re describing sounds exactly like my 2nd experience making mozzarella. The first time it worked like a charm, but the second time was a chunky mess!  I want to encourage all readers to give it a try anyway… don’t be intimidated!  My further reading has led me to conclude that the main culprit here is the Junket-brand rennet tablets we are using.  They really are not ideal for cheese-making.  I would recommend trying a liquid vegetable rennet like this one.  Not only will it be more consistently reliable for you, but it works much more quickly than the Junket tablets do… so it’ll speed up the whole process for you!  Just be sure to refer to the instructions on the bottle for how much water to mix with the rennet, instead of the amount listed in my tutorial.

As for the problem you mentioned about your cheese not being stretch-able at the end, I had the exact same problem the 2nd time I made mozzarella!  (It happens when too much rennet is used.)  But please don’t give up and throw your cheese away just because it isn’t pretty and smooth!  It’ll still be perfectly delicious if you chop it up and use it to top a pizza or stuff some calzones.

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6) What are your favorite foods to make at home that others typically buy pre-made at the store?

What a good question!  My number one answer is PIZZA.  You just can’t beat the freshness and flavor of homemade crust!  I could eat my homemade pizza crust with zero toppings and be as happy as a clam.  Other items I almost always make at home instead of buying are: hummus, bread, alfredo sauce, granola, and pesto.

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7) I can never think of meal ideas for summer (next week is supposed to be in the 90s!!) that won’t heat up my whole house, but still provide good nourishment, fullness, and most importantly taste good. I can only eat so many salads with grilled chicken on top of them. Any ideas for summer recipes that don’t require the oven being on?

My first thought in answer to your question is CROCK POT!  It’s the best way to heat your food without heating up your house. (Bonus: It’s an energy-saver and therefore a money-saver when compared to firing up your oven or stove top.)  If you are especially keen to avoid heating up your house, you can even plug the crock pot in in your garage, out on your deck, or in the laundry room with the door closed… anywhere you want!  I cook a lot of recipes using the meat from chicken thighs, and lately instead of boiling the chicken/broth on the stove, I’ve been doing it in the crock pot for this exact reason.

My second suggestion is to utilize your outdoor grill and your microwave as much as possible.  The grill can be much more versatile than you think… a cast iron skillet can be placed on the grill to fry/sauté anything you would normally sauté inside on the stove top.  Pinterest is a wealth of information for unorthodox grilling ideas!

My third thought is to come up with a few stand-by “cold” meals your family likes.  Salads are one option, but you could also have one night where you serve a “picnic meal” of assorted cheese, cold cuts, crackers, fruit, etc.  Another night could be pasta salad!  (I’m a sucker for pasta salad.  And going back to suggestion #1, you can cook that pasta in the crock pot!)

Lastly, there are a few meals you can make on the stovetop very quickly to limit excess heat-usage.  Shrimp is one protein that cooks incredibly quickly (if you are a shrimp person.)  Other ideas are grilled cheese, fried eggs, and French Toast!

Oh and a few tips for those hot days when you absolutely can’t avoid using the oven:  1) Avoid leaving the oven door open any longer than absolutely necessary after it has been pre-heated (duh, I know)… And 2) You can go ahead and turn your oven off 5 minutes before your food is done baking.  It’ll retain sufficient heat during that time to finish cooking whatever food you’re making, and then when you open it to pull out the finished dish, heat won’t be pouring out into your kitchen quite as much.  (This tip has worked really well for me during this hot week in Arkansas.

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Thank you all again for the fantastic questions!

I hope you have a fabulous Friday and a blessed Mother’s Day this weekend.  Chris and I have delicious plans for his mama that I can’t wait to share with you… she is in for some serious YUM. :)

Love,

Carissa

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3 Responses so far.

  1. Jana says:

    Loved this post! I’ve recently reached a dilemma that I’d like your opinion on… since I’ve started price matching, I look at grocery ads every week and make my shopping list (and save major $$$!). But sometimes I don’t know, do I begin with an idea of what I want to cook that week and then search the ads accordingly? Or do I look at the ads, write what is on sale that I’d usually buy, and create a meal from the choices? I am NOT very creative so option #2 usually leaves me looking at the ad, figuring out what’s on sale, looking at my recipes, and then going back to see if any of the other ingredients in said recipe are on sale. Needless to say, it’s time consuming and I don’t want it to be! Thoughts?

    • Carissa says:

      What a good point to bring up! I tend to be the opposite extreme… I hardly ever stick exactly to my recipes because I’m always trying to use up something or other from the fridge or pantry (or save money by substituting one ingredient for another.) So that definitely makes me an Option #2 person, but I can see why that would be time-consuming if creative cooking is not your forte. I’ll have to do some thinking about how I would tackle the planning from your perspective!

  2. […] Hello and welcome to the 2nd edition of “Dear Carissa” – where I answer your questions about cooking, budgeting, wellness, and life!  (Since I’m such an expert… NOT.)  Actually the real reason for this series is that I wanted a way to answer your Frequently Asked Questions in one place so that others might benefit if they were wondering the same thing.  I really enjoy the questions, comments, and feedback you send me, so keep em’ coming!  And if you didn’t catch the inaugural edition of the “Dear Carissa” series, you can find that post here. […]