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.
Alright, so let’s kick this bad boy off with a food question!
1) Could you please explain salted vs. unsalted butter. What do they do to the recipe? And if my recipe just calls for “butter”…how do I know which one to use? Will it mess up the taste if I use the wrong one?
Ahhh, butter! Odd little factoid: According to my best gal-pal, Ina Garten, American butter has the least flavor of any of the butter options out there. (Of course she would say that!) Anyway, Ina recommends Irish butter, British butter, pretty much any butter they have to import to your local Kroger and charge two dollars more for. So do with that advice what you will.
But regarding “salted” vs. “unsalted” butter – The only difference they make in your recipe is a flavor difference. I try to have both on hand when I can afford it, and just unsalted when I can’t. Unsalted is the most versatile because you can always add more salt to your recipe when using it, if needed. In my opinion, salted butter is really just nice for convenience’s sake (when buttering a baked potato for instance… just one step as opposed to two.)
Generally I would advise you to use unsalted butter for baked goods, because those recipes often call for a specific amount of additional salt, and using salted butter could result in too much salt in the finished food. But for cooking, sautéing, and finishing off your dishes, salted butter works well.
Just be sure you’re not smearing unsalted butter on a piece of toast in the morning. That’s just gross.
2) How in the world do you have time to budget your groceries so well and have a little one at the same time? As a single mom, I really need to budget, but struggle to find the time to sit down and get fully organized before a shopping trip. Little ones take out all my energy and I just give up trying.
I can certainly relate to that feeling. It required a shift in many of my comfortable habits to finally get my grocery spending under control. Consistency in setting aside time to budget is a continual challenge for me!
One thing that helps is that I limit my grocery trips! I don’t go to the store multiple times a week, just once. Doing that not only drastically cuts down on “impulse buying”… but it also reduces the amount of time I have to spend “prepping” for grocery trips to once per week.
Secondly, I advise you to keep an ongoing grocery list in the kitchen and add items to it throughout your week (as you think of them, or as you run out of things.) That saves you from having to sit down and write out a big grocery list before heading to the store, and it also decreases the likelihood that you’ll forget to include something important on your list and have to go back.
My third piece of advice is to devote roughly 45 mins the night before your grocery trip to prepping… after the kids’ bedtime. Use that time to read through your grocery store’s weekly circular, create a rough meal plan for the week, finalize your list, and gather any coupons that apply. You don’t have to create a “set in stone” meal plan, because you might get to the grocery store and find a great manager’s special sale that alters your plan a bit. But definitely have an idea of a few meals you can make that allow you to take advantage of that week’s advertised sales.
Last (and most important) piece of advice: Make your prep time a bit of an indulging ritual for yourself! For example, I like to put on some fuzzy socks and make myself a mocha, then settle in for a prep sesh. That way it feels like less of an energy-sapping “chore” and more of a relaxing “mommy’s time out.”
3) I REALLY want to grow fresh herbs but I’m not sure how to do that indoors. (I’m assuming I’ll need to do it indoors since the weather is getting colder.) Do you do it? Is it possible?
I usually grow mine outside. Rosemary and thyme can generally survive the winter outside, so you can plant either of those in the Spring and expect them to live year-round. If you live somewhere like Canada and have snow on the ground through most of the winter, you can plant rosemary and thyme in pots and bring them inside each winter… but just be aware that potted herbs require diligence in watering and fertilizing (especially through the hot summer) so that they don’t dry out.
Other herbs, like basil and cilantro, need a fair amount of heat and sun, so they’re a bit difficult to grow indoors. Worth a try though! I would use little pots that sit in a tray to catch any drainage. (Like these!). Pick up some seeds or seedlings at your local garden center, then fill your pots with potting soil and top them with a layer of peet moss or mulch to help keep moisture in. Position them by a well-insulated window in your house, and then lightly water them 5x a week or so. (They won’t necessarily need water every day… touch the soil with your fingers first and only water if the soil feels dry.)
4) I have a budgeting question about “Blow Money”- Let’s say you and Chris each get $50 a month to spend on whatever. Is that money taken out in cash at the beginning of the month? And if you don’t spend your allotted blow money, does it roll over into the next month?
We take it out in cash at the beginning of each month, and yes, it rolls over if we don’t spend it. (Hubs is a blow money “hoarder”… and I usually have mine spent in my mind a few months ahead.) And if we make a personal purchase online or with a credit/debit card, we “pay back the pot” from our stash of blow cash. On an unrelated note, I’m embarrassed to admit how much of my blow money gets spent on food-type treats. One way we keep our grocery spending so low is that “special food” (like my favorite OceanSpray cranberry sodas) come from our blow-money.
5) Due to my little one, I’m now having to eat dairy and soy free, which I’m finding quite challenging. The most difficult part is finding substitutes for my favorite sweet things (hot chocolate and baked treats). Do you know how I can get a handle on this diet change and/or how to make treats that are soy and dairy free??
Wow, that question is right up my alley! Did you read this post I wrote recently about plant-based eating? I’ve actually been decreasing my intake of all animal products (dairy included) over the last year, so I’m learning all sorts of new tricks about dairy-free cooking and baking. Coconut milk, almond milk, coconut oil, and various nut butters all make great substitutes for milk and butter in baking (with a few tweaks.) Rather than trying to tweak your old recipes, I’d start hunting down new ones online using the hashtags #dairyfree #soyfree and #vegan, and start experimenting! Here is my favorite recipe for dairy-free chocolate fudge cookies, you should definitely try it! And my favorite hot chocolate recipe would be equally delicious with almond or coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. My Cleansing Recipes Board on Pinterest might be a good starting point for you to collect some recipes that fit these new criteria.
Soy-free is a bit trickier. I’m assuming you’re not struggling to give up tofu and edamame… it’s the “hidden” soy present in so many packaged food products that is the real problem. And tough as it might seem at first, your best bet will be to shift away from packaged and processed foods as much as you can. Cooking from scratch is the most effective way to make sure you are eliminating soy from your diet. Ditch the seasoning packets, processed lunch meats, Toaster Strudels… whatever food you’re currently buying that you have to take out of a wrapper before consuming. Make your own oatmeal for breakfast, try a hummus wrap for lunch instead of using deli turkey, you get the idea. Of course, the drawback of dropping “convenience foods” is that life becomes decidedly less “convenient.” I hate that you for… but I can tell you that cooking the majority of your food from scratch does get easier and quicker as you get the hang of it, and that your whole family will be healthier as a result!
As for the foods you absolutely don’t have time to make from scratch (think dried pasta, breakfast sausage, yogurt…) you’ll just have to become a diligent label reader and sale-spotter. Most “soy-free” packaged foods are going to be found in specialty aisles of your grocery store, so keep an eye on your weekly circular and watch for discounts on those brands. Speaking of food costs, I do NOT think your new diet/lifestyle has to cost a fortune. I talked about how to eat less processed food while maintaining a low grocery budget in the last installment of “Dear Carissa”, so definitely check that post out!
6) I really enjoyed your recent post on plant-based eating! At this point in my life (where husband and I are both fairly busy and aren’t able to spend a lot of time thinking about the food we eat), my biggest struggle is finding food to prepare that is a good balance between nutrition, budget, and convenience. It often seems that what one entrée offers in 2 of those categories, it severely lacks in the 3rd. What I wonder about the plant-based genre is how it measures up in the convenience realm.
Well, I hate to say it, but your suspicions are correct. I have found that while our shift to an un-processed, plant-based diet has been incredibly affordable and (obviously) healthy, it has considerably increased the amount of time I spend prepping meals (and cleaning up afterward.) Maybe it’s all that washing and chopping you have to do before you can actually start cooking the meal, but cooking with lots of fresh veggies and other “from scratch” ingredients is definitely work! But as I said to the reader above, it does get easier (as does any skill, once you’ve gotten the hang of it.) And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there are NO convenient plant-based options out there. There are! It just might take you a while to hunt down a varied arsenal of convenient, plant-based meals to whip out after a long, busy day.
Here are a few I can suggest though: Rigatoni with Tomato Basil Vinaigrette is cheap, healthy, AND quick. (Win!) Quinoa Breakfast Bake uses frozen veggies to speed-up the prep time, so it scores high in all three categories as well! Quinoa Taco Bake is another quick, healthy, and affordable dinner option! And hey, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional “Oatmeal for Dinner” night! Baby steps in the plant-based direction are great… do what you can in the season that you’re in.