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After realizing that the Laptop Lunch was too small for J’s needs, I despaired a little, as it’s one of the biggest bento boxes on the market (see my complete review of the Laptop Lunch here).  According to the company, it holds 1400 mL or 3 cups, with each of the two larger compartments measuring 8 ounces and the two smaller compartments measuring 4 ounces each.  When filled according to the traditional bento ratio of 3 parts rice/carbohydrates, 2 parts veggies/fruit, and 1 part protein (all by volume), the box would provide a 1,400 calorie lunch.  That ratio, however, is not what works best for us, and our high vegetable consumption really drops the box’s caloric capacity.  What to do?

I zipped through Whole Foods one day on a Coconut Bliss run, when something shiny caught my eye.  A whole display of stacked, two-compartment, sparkly stainless steel lunch boxes, looking rather like an arsenal of space capsules, waved cheerfully at me.  Oh man.  I try to eschew impulse buys, but I just couldn’t resist this one.  It was big and looked easy to clean.  Bingo!

Here it is in action.

Step 1: fill bottom compartment.  This container is so roomy that I fit a generous portion of mixed baby greens, sliced cucumbers, shredded cabbage, sliced green bell pepper, sliced carrots, shredded organic cheddar, and a portion of homemade vinaigrette (the plastic dressing container is from the Laptop Lunch set).

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Step 2: place stainless steel divider over bottom layer.

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Step 3: pack top compartment.  It doesn’t look terribly appealing, I suppose, but this was actually quite tasty — seasoned brown rice, beef and veggie patty (kind of like meatloaf), and an herbed mushroom sauce.

top compressed

Step 4: slap the lid on top, slide it into its carrier, and fasten it securely.  Doesn’t it look just like a space capsule?

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Step 5: when  I manage to remember, I like to add a cloth napkin to the package, and on his workout days, I often slip a Lara Bar in the loop too.

whole with napkin compressed

Cool, right?

Downsides:

  • Can’t be microwaved.  This doesn’t bother us since we try to avoid microwaves and don’t mind eating cold leftovers.
  • Doesn’t fit easily into an insulated bag with an ice pack.  Since J drops his lunchbox in the refrigerator as soon as he arrives at the office, though, this doesn’t affect us.

Upsides (compared to the Laptop Lunch Box):

  • So easy to clean!  And only two compartments!
  • No plastic.
  • Very cool retro look.
  • Large capacity.  That leaves lots and lots of room for vegetables.  Sometimes, I fill up the bottom compartment with cut up veggies and fruit and throw in a small container of peanut butter or hummus.

My great sorrow: It doesn’t have a brand name on it anywhere, I threw away the box, and I can’t find anything just like it online!  How awful is that?  They aren’t carrying it at Whole Foods anymore either.  I plan to ask a manager next time I’m there if they have records of the manufacturer.  I’m sure they do, and I would really like to buy another one.

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It seems I’m not the only one with lunchboxes on the brain.  Apartment Therapy dumped yet another super cool brown bag idea in my inbox this morning.  I suppose it’s the economy.  Everyone wants to save a buck these days and, and taking a bagged lunch is one of the easiest, healthiest ways to save a whole bushel of ’em.  And if you can pat yourself on the back for being green on top of it all, that’s even better.  But how about doing all of that in style?

oots1These lunchboxes by OOTS! marry good looks and practicality better than any I’ve seen so far.  I simply adore that blue and pink combo.  And look how my Klean Kanteen would fit on top!  I love it.  Love, love, love it.

Unfortunately, at $45 each when you by them with the inner lidded compartments (a must in my book), these boxes are a little harder on the budget up front than some other perfectly suitable options (exhibit a: the Laptop Lunch, which I reviewed yesterday).  The only catch is, this one is light years ahead of the Laptop Lunch in the cool quotient department, at least when it comes to adult usage.

oots 2

Oh dear.  I’m not sure I can justify spending the money on it right now, but I really want one.  Birthday fairy?  Santa Clause?  Easter bunny?  Are you listening?

Go check these out at the official OOTS! website. This design team has some really cool baby and child accessories too, by the way.

(Photos are from the OOTS! website.)

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My new apartment has a ledge over the kitchen sink that’s simply begging for cheerful houseplants.  Combine that with my desire to keep growing fresh herbs after the move, and you can understand why I was so thrilled that The Kitchn blog pointed me to a fabulous Chow article on growing herbs indoors.  The article explains why peppermint, lemongrass, and chives are easiest, while basil and sage are best avoided by the indoor gardener.  The author also details proper watering and feeding protocol, which, as a total gardening nincompoop, I really appreciate.  If you’ve ever wanted to grow herbs indoors, or — from one brown thumb to another — if you’ve ever killed herbs indoors, you might check it out.

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I admit that we spend a lot on groceries.  While eating healthfully doesn’t necessarily equal a high food bill, when you toss in the stipulation that grains and most legumes must be avoided too, well, you can only go so low.  Fortunately, I still find ways to cut costs.  I buy quality meats through a co-op, make the most of my Costco membership, comparison-shop like mad, cook from scratch almost exclusively (i.e., no convenience items), buy my eggs from a farmer who doesn’t know his real worth (I wrestle weekly with wanting to tell him that he really should be charging more and yet wanting to keep getting a steal of deal), and try to focus on low-cost cuts of meat and cheap vegetables and fruits. 

Lately, I’ve also been trying to build an arsenal of frugal, grain-free, legume-free recipes.  Most of them aren’t fancy, but as long as they taste good and don’t kill our budget, we’re happy.  The best meals for us are those that work great with the addition of rice or quinoa for my hubby, who needs the carbs.  Poor Man’s Rosemary Beef and Vegetables is just such a dish.  A few weeks ago, I found myself in a real pinch without a menu plan and a dwindling supply of ingredients in my fridge and pantry.  Panicky, I threw a few items together and came up with what turned out to be a new favorite.  It’s not elegant, and it’s not pretty, but, boy, is it tasty!  We liked it so much that we’ve made it a couple of times since, and I have it on the menu for tonight too. 

Made with ground beef (can it get any cheaper?) and the most frugal of vegetables, this recipe is my contribution to The Nourishing Gourmet’s Nourishing Frugal Recipes Carnival.  It stretches a pound of meat a long, long way, especially if you eat it with the rice.  To spread the meat even thinner, try adding diced potatoes to the mix. 

 

Poor Man’s Rosemary Beef and Vegetables

1 pound ground beef
6 to 8 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
3 medium stalks celery, diced
1/2 small-medium head of cabbage (red or green), thinly sliced
28 ounces petite diced canned tomatoes
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
sea salt
black pepper

Brown the beef with the garlic and onions.  Drain.

Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 or 20 minutes.  Adjust seasonings.

Serve alone or over cooked brown rice.

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Loving Costco

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I mentioned yesterday that I recently bought a Costco membership, and Juanita asked whether I find that I really save money, considering the way we eat.  This is such a good question!  I actually avoided a Sam’s or Costco membership for a long time because I thought it couldn’t possibly save me more than a few pennies.  Shortly after I married, I visited a Sam’s to do some reconnaissance.  I ran away, disgusted by the endless processed convenience food.  It was rows and rows of absolute junk.  After repeatedly hearing about Costco, however, both on The Nourishing Gourmet and Keeper of the Home, and after reading a fascinating article in Fast Company about what a great company Costco is, I decided to give them a chance.  I am so, so glad I did!  Even though we eat virtually no convenience foods, I’m finding Costco a real treasure trove.  Here are a few finds I’m saving lots of money on:

  • Nuts — Can I say “wow”?  Costco’s prices on raw pecans, walnuts, and almonds (though I suppose the latter are irradiated now) are fabulous.  If I remember correctly, I bought pecans for $4 or $5 per pound, when they’re $8 to $10 per pound to buy them in bulk at my grocery store.  I also procured almond butter at a steal of a price.
  • Canned Fish — I love that I can buy wild caught Alaskan salmon and light tuna for much better prices than in the grocery store.  I know that canned fish is not as good as fresh or frozen, but this is our version of convenience food.  I think it beats Hamburger Helper in the nutrition department any day.
  • Frozen Fish — Okay, now this I’m really, really excited about.  I’ve been buying wild caught Alaskan salmon, wild caught cod, and wild caught halibut for significantly less than at my grocery store.  What has shocked me the most is how good this frozen fish tastes.  I grew up under the tutelage of a food snob, so I’ve always scorned frozen fish.  Only fresh for me.  But that’s changed now.   Yes, fresh is better, but this stuff is awfully close — especially the salmon.  I can lightly season it and brown it in a pan, and it’s awesome.  The halibut is probably the fishiest tasting of the three, and it’s still very tasty.  I adore that the portions are individually vacuum-packed, which means I can throw 2 wrapped pieces into a bowl of warm water at the last minute and be eating dinner 30 minutes later.  Sweet.
  • Produce— Yes, really.  Organic apples for roughly $1 per pound.  One pound boxes of prewashed, organic baby spinach for $4.  Ten pound bags of organic carrots for $5.  The list goes on and on.  I save on mushrooms, English cucumbers, garlic, and bell peppers too, though none of these are organic.  (I can’t afford a 100% organic diet since we don’t have the luxury of filling up on the ever-so-thrifty grains)  The produce offerings vary from week to week, but I’ve seen great prices on pineapples, oranges, grapefruits, grapes, and everything in between.  In the past 2 years, I could have saved somuch on entertaining costs if I had owned a Costco membership.  Argh.
  • Spices and Seasonings — I saw vanilla beans for a very good price, and I picked up some whole black peppercorns at a significant discount.  The other basics are available too.
  • Household Products— I just bought recycled paper towels for a great price.  I also restocked our toilet paper there, as well as massive bottles of rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.  I’ll buy bandaids here in the future, and if I need disposables for some kind of party, I’d buy those at Costco too.
  • Organic Tortilla Chips — One of the few processed foods we buy regularly.  My husband loves these things, and the Costco price is unbeatable.  I think it’s about $4.50 for a 2.5 pound bag of organic corn chips. 
  • Lamb — I haven’t seen any grass-fed beef or hormone-free chicken, but I did buy a leg of lamb for $3 per pound.  Nourishing Traditions says that it’s just fine to buy lamb from the grocery store because almost all lamb is grass fed.
  • Gluten-Free Novelties— Again, a rare indulgence.  I bought some gluten-free crackers that turned out to be delicious.  I intended to save them for communion and for those times when we go out to eat (I can use them for hummus and other dips when restaurants only provide pitas or bread), but they were so good I ate the whole bag already.  Oops.  I also bought some Mrs. May’s snacks to keep in my purse for blood sugar emergencies.  They’ve come in handy several times.
  • Miscellaneous— I bought a pair of Mary Jane-style Crocs to replace the ones I left behind in New Mexico over Christmas.  Get this: $15.  I paid $40 for my original pair.  Gah!  I snagged some cute pajamas for J for next to nothing (one of his Valentine’s gifts) and got a really good deal on a set of cordless phones.  I’m also secretly eyeing the deeply-discounted Movado watches.  Not that it’s ever going to happen.  Still, they’re fun to look at.  😉 

So.  That’s a quick overview of a few things I’ve been buying.  I realize that in an ideal world, I would buy all my produce from local farms and that I would never use canned foods or frozen fish.  I might also scour the internet for even better deals on some of these items (like the vanilla beans or the phones).  I am, however, human, and Costco meets my needs.  It’s a good mix of savings and convenience for us.  Combined with my farmers’ market and regular grocery store shopping, I’m very satisfied.

What about you?  Do you have a Costco membership?  Do you find that you save money, even when eating a healthy diet?  Do you know of any alternatives?

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Besides raising safety concerns for ourselves and others, hurricane Ike ruined Justice’s and my plans for a special date night yesterday.  With posts on gardening and its wonderful fruits flooding the blogosphere lately, my increasing interest in eating seasonally (spawned by the farmers’ markets), my mother-in-law’s recent success growing just a handful of spinach plants, and rising grocery costs, I finally had the thought the other day, You know, maybe I’ll plant some tomatoes next year.  I like tomatoes, you see, and the ones at the grocery store are awful, while those at the farmers’ market are expensive.  This isn’t a completely new concept.  Justice and I have both talked about starting a garden, but the conversations so far have been pretty abstract.  This was the first time I felt a real desire to do something.  I think I’m settling more into nesting mode as I approach graduation.  Domesticity is starting to sound really good these days.

This thought then led to another one a few days later, Why wait until next spring to plant something?  I had a point.  Dark, leafy greens and lettuces grow all fall and winter here, and they’re some of my favorite vegetables.  In fact, as much as I love cucumbers, I prefer the winter farmers’ markets to the summer ones.  And my grandpa, who is a fantastic gardener by the way (oh, for his peaches, peas, onions, and tomatoes!), says that kale tastes better after the weather gets cold.  I quickly performed a Google search on “Houston fall gardening” and came up with lots of great information.  Apparently, September is not too late for greens and lettuces.  Hurrah! 

But since I know approximately, oh, nothing about gardening, I scoured the Urban Harvest website for information.  (Urban Harvest is a local non-profit organization devoted to educating the public about organic gardening, supporting school and community gardens, and sponsoring the Bayou City Farmers’ Market, which I think is the best one in Houston.)  Lo and behold, they were offering a beginner’s class on home fruit and vegetable gardening in only two days!  I eagerly called, bought a membership for a very reasonable fee, and registered myself and my husband for the class.  We used some money that we had set aside for our anniversary for the purchase.  We wondered what could be a better gift to ourselves for our anniversary than investing in a new hobby for the two of us to enjoy together?

I have to be realistic about this, of course.  My childhood gardening attempts failed miserably, and as much as I love the idea of gardening, I haven’t generally enjoyed the reality in the past.  However, I love to research, plan, and coordinate; I think gardening makes all the sense in the world; and I adore cooking with fresh ingredients.  Plus, I’m trying to keep an open mind.  My husband, as it turns out, hates research and planning but really enjoys working with his hands outside.  I think we might make a good team for gardening success.  Who knows?  We’ll start small this year and work our way up if all goes well.

For the moment, I’m most excited about the opportunity to spend time learning something new together.  Learning together thrills me because it always produces the best conversations!  I enjoy my husband so much.  Yes, I think this will be a fun little adventure for our marriage.  Maybe it will grow into a life-long hobby we’ll enjoy for the next fifty years together.  Or maybe in fifty years we’ll look back, shake our heads in amazement, say, “What were we thinking?!”, and tell our grandchildren all about our young folly.  Either way, I think gardening is bound to produce memories we’ll treasure.

Hurricane Ike will pass soon, and then Urban Harvest will reschedule the class.  I look forward to sharing our experiences here. 

What do you think of gardening?  Have you always loved it, or was it an acquired taste?  How did you learn about it?  From your parents?  Classes?  Books?  Do you have any tips for newbies?

(This post is a part of Frugal Friday, a blog carnival at Biblical Womanhood.)

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Transitioning to natural self-care products has played a major role in my health quest over the past couple of years.  What we put on our skin is absorbed into the blood stream and, thus, can be almost as important as the food we put in our mouths.  I have experimented with a number of products, from Aveda (not so natural) to Alba to Jason to homemade formulas and a bunch more in between.  Recently, I seem to have stumbled upon a combination that truly works for me without breaking the budget.  My skin, though not perfect, feels softer and looks clearer more consistently than ever before.  I cannot attribute this only to my diet or to age because I notice obvious changes for the worse when I use other products or cleansing methods, whether due to travel or to my misguided desire to use up my old products in an effort not to waste anything.  Obviously, what works for me will not work for everyone else, and, for that matter, what works for me now will likely need tweaking as I age and experience major hormonal changes (e.g., bearing children).  That said, some of these ideas and product lines may give you a great place to start if you’re new to the idea of natural skin care.

For the record, I have very sensitive, moderately oily skin that is prone to mild breakouts. 

Face: Night Routine

I started using the oil cleansing method (OCM) a few months ago after reading about it on several blogs (including Keeper of the Home), and I have been so impressed!  It leaves my skin feeling sofresh and soft.  Best of all, it has reduced my breakouts.  I didn’t think so for a while, but when I returned to some of my old sensitive skin cleanser to be a good girl and use it up, I got more blemishes.  This persisted during my usual “clear time” of the month.  Then, I returned to the OCM just in time for my “breakout time” of the month, but my skin actually became clearer!  Crazy.

So what does the OCM entail?  To begin, I mixed up a batch of 25% high quality castor oil from the health food store and 75% extra virgin olive oil.  I placed this mix in an old cleanser pump bottle that I had thoroughly cleaned with super hot soap and water and a rinse of rubbing alcohol (you don’t want bacteria growing in your cleanser!). 

Every night, I wash my hands, dry them, and dispense 1-1/2 pumps of oil into my hand (just larger than a quarter).  I rub my hands together to warm the oil, then I massage it onto my dry face, concentrating on the oiliest, most breakout-prone areas.  I do this slowly and purposefully; I find it very relaxing. 

Next, I take a regular face cloth (washed and dried without fragrances) and wet it with very hot water–as hot as I can get it from my faucet.  I wring it out, turn my face toward the ceiling, and drape the cloth over my face and part of my neck.  I gently press it into my skin as the steam opens up my pores.  When it begins to cool, I draw it off of my face, taking most of my makeup with it.  I don’t find it necessary to scrub at all, though I do apply mild pressure.  After rinsing the cloth thoroughly in hot water, I repeat this process two more times.  My skin feels amazing afterwards!  It is soft and dewey.  I don’t even find it necessary to dry it with a towel.

Finally, I apply an exfoliating serum to my skin.  The Gogi Azeliac Clarifying Serum from Skin by Ann Webb works wonders for me.  Although Ann Webb products are not yet part of the Skin Deep database, I whittled away one evening entering ingredient after ingredient into their search engine.  It appears that, as claimed, Ann Webb products are remarkably clean.  I was fortunate enough to receive a free consulation with Webb when she visited a local Whole Foods, and she really impressed me with her knowledge and commitment to natural products.  Based in Austin, Texas, Webb is creating quite a stir in the natural skin care world.  The best part?  Her products last forever (5 months, no kidding) and are very affordable.  I couldn’t be more pleased.  I never thought I needed a serum, but the Gogi serum, containing azeliac acid, goji berries, retinol, salicylic acid, and lactic acid has noticeably improved the smoothness and clearness of my skin.  (Visit the Skin by Ann Webb websitefor more information, helpful hints on preventing acne, local retailers, and online ordering.)

That’s all I do at night.  I should note that many people who use the OCM simply apply a dab of the oil mix or virgin coconut oil to their skin as a moisturizer.  I tried this myself, but it didn’t work for me.  My skin texture deteriorated into a strange combination of dry, bumpy patches and slick, oily patches.  You may wish to try this method, however, particularly if you have normal to dry skin.  I know that it works for Lindsay of Passionate Homemaking.  To learn more about the OCM, including why it works, different oils you can use, and how to adapt it to your skin type, visit this great website

Face: Morning Routine

Since I perform such a thorough cleansing at night, I keep my morning routine simple.  First, I exfoliate my wet skin with either a dab of baking soda and water or simply a warm, wet cloth.  Then, I pat my skin dry with a towel and apply the Pomegranate Protection moisturizer from Skin by Ann Webb.  This is the only moisturizer with SPF I’ve ever tolerated.  It never feels greasy, and it absorbs quickly, providing a perfect amount of hydration for my skin.  I have often found that moisturizers designed for oily skin are too drying, while those designed for normal to dry skin are too greasy.  This one is just right.  

Since I’m not sold on the necessity of sunscreen for daily wear, I may experiment with some SPF-free lotions in the future, but for now, I’m quite content with this one.  It’s the best I’ve found so far.

Body Wash

We currently use an old pump dispenser filled halfway with Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Castile All-One Peppermint Soap and halfway with water.  When applied to one of those loopy-things (Bath & Body calls it a “sponge,” while The Body Shop calls it a “bath lily”), it forms a rich lather.  I love that the soap is free-trade, organic, and made of perfectly non-toxic ingredients.  The peppermint flavor provides the additional perk of waking me up in the morning, which is something I definitely require.  (For other uses for Dr. Bronner’s soaps and for more information on where to buy it, see my earlier post on the topic.)

Body Moisturizers

Alas, I have not yet found the perfect lotion for my body.  I currently use two Jason lotions, but I can’t whole-heartedly recommend them because of some questionable ingredients (at least, questionable according to Skin Deep).  That said, they are far better than the traditional petroleum-based lotions, so Jason lotions make a great first step.  The products contain no parabens, mineral oils, petroleum products, waxes, or animal products.  They are also affordable, easy to find, and very effective.  I adore the E.F.A. lotion, and their Aloe Vera lotion is pretty awesome too.  We buy Jason products through Vitacost, an online company that gives steep discounts and a flat shipping rate.

Whew!  I hope that was helpful.  I’m going to go lie down.  I had my wisdom teeth removed yesterday, and I’m feeling rather icky from the pain meds.  Vicodin loves me not.

For more great Works for Me Wednesday ideas, visit Rocks in My Dryer.

 

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