Monday, November 30, 2015

Soft and pretty Shabby chic gift tags...

We've been busy Christmassing here.
For us, that means putting together packages of gift wrap makings.
I find that so often, people get so caught up in buying the gifts, that they forget about the gift wrap, and gift tags and sticky tape, and ribbons.
This often means a last minute mercy dash to the stores, and we all know how that ends! Frustration, fights for a car park, and likely too much money spent.
So in order to make the gift wrapping process go more smoothly, we give the gift of gift wrap!
These sweet tags are what are called 'luggage tags'. You buy them here at Newsagents or Stationers and they're usually 5c each. They're also available online. They're made from manilla cardboard, like manilla folders used in offices and classrooms, and this great neutral colour makes them a wonderful background for anything that takes your fancy.
It's worth spending a bit of time preparing your bibs and bobs for a tag making session as the more little pretties you have on hand, the more unique and special your tags will be. Ours are never the same twice!
Here's what I did...
A few days before making my tags, I spent time hand dyeing rolls of white crepe paper streamers, tea dyeing paper doilies, and sourcing interesting looking wrapping paper from $2 stores in a couple of different patterns.
In my craft stash, I already had a French script stamp the width of the tags and almost the same length, to use as background, some diamante` stick on dots, and some pastel tulle ribbon purchased from Koch & Co, a florist supplier here in Australia. That was part of last years crafting frenzy and purchased on sale. You could also use bridal tulle cut into strips, but this just makes it easy. I always have lots of ribbons on hand so they were on standby too. There was also packets of Dylon fabric dye, that I currently use to dye muslin. As I only use a pinch at a time, there was more than enough left for this project, and some to spare. We love glitter as well, especially white or holographic glitter, so we got that out too. Of course we had craft glue on hand as well.
I separated my white crepe paper streamer roll into four lengths so I could have different colours and shades. I rolled them into loose rolls.
Now dyeing crepe paper is an idea I got from Annabel over at The Bluebirds are Nesting. You can see her blog over there on the right of screen. She dyes whole lengths of crepe paper and makes the most divine paper roses from them. Alas, when I attempted dyeing a whole length, it disintegrated when I lifted it from the dye solution. I must go back and read Annabels instructions again. You can see her roses and the instructions here.
To dye the crepe paper streamers, I filled my stainless steel kitchen sink to a depth that matched the width of the streamer, plus a bit, with hand hot water from the tap. I added a generous pinch of pink dye powder and swirled it to dissolve the powder. I then stood two of the rolls in the water, rolled edge down, and weighted them with a large kitchen knife, so they wouldn't float. I let them sit there for maybe fifteen minutes until I could see they'd absorbed the dye, flipping them over after eight to ten minutes to get both edges coloured. This method gives a dark edge, with a more pastel effect towards the middle.
I then lifted them from the water, and gently squeezed a little of the moisture from them. They'll be very fragile so be careful. And don't squeeze too much liquid from them, because that's your dye.
They get set aside now for 24-36 hours to dry well.
I repeated this process using a pinch of bright orange dye and the other two rolls of crepe paper streamer.
This is how they looked once darker pink, one lighter pink done second, and a really delicate peach colour from the orange dye. Vary the amount of dye according to the depth of colour you'd like.
Next I dyed some paper doilies with black tea. That's normal tea, nothing flash.
Again, I added tap hot water to the kitchen sink, and threw in half a dozen teabags.
Into the tea solution went the doilies, one by one, immersing them just so they coloured, then carefully removing them to a teatowel on the table, to dry out. Again they will be fragile so gently does it.
Here's how they looked...
I also printed off a sweet image of a ballerina on a sheet music background that we really liked.
Then off we went.
Each tag was started by stamping the French script as a background.
Then a bit of tea dyed doyley like a scrap of lace would be added, with other papers or embellishments layered until we were pleased with the result. Some images or shapes, were then edged with pearl paint.
A frill of tulle or hand dyed crepe paper finished the bottom edges, and these were then dipped in glue and glitter to frost the edges prettily.
Diamante dots were applied to disguise joins, ribbons added to the little holes, and we were done.
Each tag takes mere minutes once you have all your materials at hand, and my daughter and I made 30 in about half an hour.
These will be gifted 15 in a bunch, along with hand scribed lengths of Butchers Paper saying 'Joyeux Noel', and 'Merry Christmas'. Swathes of calico, muslin or pastel printed fabric will be included as gift ribbon. This is an idea I got from Annabel as well, that really makes this style of gift wrapping look very special indeed. Annabel uses old recycled sheets and stamps them with glittered chandeliers and crowns. Just gorgeous. You can see those here.

These are always welcomed as gifts in themselves, and you will not believe how many of my friends ask for these 'gift wrapping packages' each year.
You can customise them according to the occasion or season, and the recipients style or preferences.
These are particularly pretty I think.
What do you think?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Five Star Frou-Frou #29....Happy Thanksgiving!
This weeks features include Stephanies divine looking Caramel Marshmallow Bars...
ChelC's gorgeous little Stay Cozy basket, which is not help to me in Australia just now, but I love the idea so much, I had to include it!
And because you all know I'm a sucker for a rose, Megs gorgeous roses had to have a spot!
Happy Thanksgiving to all my U.S. friends no matter where you are!
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Thursday, November 26, 2015

50 & Fab....time for a style rant...

I wrote a post recently on finding my style. It's one of my most read posts ever. You can find it here.
Clearly there are many of us confused by the many pronged fork of fashion faux pas.
I've now read three books by so called Style Advisors, and the first thing that struck me was that in each, they tell you on the first page, to be yourself. Then they spend the next 359 pages, telling you what not to wear. And what you should wear. And how precisely to NOT be yourself.
The book I just finished said that we should all be wearing socks with our sandals. They're joking, right? Please tell me they are. What the blazes?? Last time I wore socks with my sandals, I was five years old, and even then I took the socks off as soon as I was out of Nannas sight. Even at the age of five, I somehow knew that it was just wrong.
We're also advised to wear anything we like from our boyfriends closet. I don't have a boyfriend, I'm pretty sure my husband would have something to say if I did. And if I raided my husbands closet, I'd be wearing three quarter shorts, surf shirts and in a pinch, flannelette shirts. NOT very stylish. He can't help it. He's Australian, and grew up water skiing and surfing. Poor bloke. They also mentioned that if the boyfriend/husbands jeans were too big, that even we curvier ladies could just cinch them in with a belt. I can tell you right here and now, that this is a very bad idea. And the thing is, that I'm pretty sure I've seen some ladies around my neighbourhood who've taken this piece of advice to heart. See. Scary in the wrong hands.
We're told not to wear black or white in one book, unless it's the LBD (little black dress to the uninitiated) because black is so draining and nobody looks good in white, not even brides. We're assured however, that neutrals are always tasteful, in another fashion forward treatise.
While we're at it, let's talk about the LBD. I don't wear dresses. I have two dresses in my wardrobe. One I bought just last week, and it may very well be the first dress in ten years that suits me. Like me, it doesn't have a waist, so I think we'll be good friends. I'm thinking of buying five more so we can be friends forever. The other is my wedding dress, which I keep for sentimental reasons. Other than that, my LBD is not an LBD. It's LBP or Long Black Pants. And before we go any further, I'm not talking about anything ending in '-egging', like 'jegging', or 'legging'. Skinny pants, especially black ones, look good on me. So do white ones, which I love in Summer. Skinny pants are perhaps the only thing that looks good on me these days. Although the song that chants 'the only thing that looks good on you' springs to mind should Johnny Depp and I ever meet face to face. That unlikely event aside, I have long legs for a short person and skinny pants suit me well. I wear them with floaty shirts and the occasional trim tshirt that is forgiving over my flab.
We're told to mix prints like tartan and Liberty florals in this one, and heaven forbid, warned to never commit such style blasphemy in a conflicting tome. I think that one is the same one that said French women don't care about nice nails. Lies, people, all lies.
But of course you don't have to take any of this on board, because you're always remembering to 'be yourself' and 'find your own style' and 'be unique'.
The book I just finished said that to be truly stylish we should look a bit dishevelled and that this was the secret to looking French. Hmmm. I think only the French can get away with that one. Where I live, there's a fine line between dishevelled, and couldn't be bothered combing my hair or showering today.
I'm actually quite disillusioned with the whole Style Bible idea to be honest.
I viewed some pics of a gathering of a bunch of supposedly stylish people a while back, one of them the author of a Style Bible, and well, yeah, they did look a bit dishevelled actually. But not in what I thought was a good way. They all looked like they were wearing art. Or their lounge cover. One or the other, or sometimes both at the same time. One lady looked like she had worn the hat box instead of the hat. I gather that this is probably entirely crafted and intentional, but whatever happened to the idea that we should see you in the clothing, not the clothing on you. I get it, but I don't. Not in the context of my life. And how does looking like you're wearing furnishings, make you stylish??? I'm clearly a heathen.
And I'm sorry, but some of the people dishing out this advice, just don't look the way I want to look. I've given up on a couple of style blogs, because I got tired of the gushing comments telling them how fabulous they looked in very unlovely things. Is it some perverse female thing to tell someone they look fabulous, when they look truly hideous? Actually, scratch that question. I know it is. I really just wanted to be honest and say 'no, that looks awful'. There was one time when a couple of people did say that with varying degrees of diplomacy, so it's not just me. And all the while these probably quite lovely people, are putting themselves out there, ostensibly trying to help the rest of us hapless style-clueless folk, and I'm sitting here wondering why I wasted my hard earned dosh on their book, because the sum total of what I gained from their advice is simple darned confusion.
I'm not reading or listening to them any more. The only person I might listen to, having seen her at the age of at least 65, getting up close with Ewan McGregor in the film, Deception (and more power to her), is Charlotte Rampling. She looked fab when she was young, seen above at the top of my post, and she looks fab now, at 67 years of age...seen below.
I like her simple understated-ness in both photos. That's my idea of 'dishevelled but stylish'. She's more covered up here, but from what I see, she hasn't deviated much from a fundamental elegant look. I'm not tall and slender like her, but I think I can manage elegant and understated.
If I want to be arty, I'll go Boho arty, like my other style idol, Stevie Nicks, as she was back in the day. That woman knew how to do curly hair and frou-frou without looking like a Nanna and not a Nepalese tote bag in sight....
I think the people writing these books are having a gigantic lend of us, as the Aussie saying goes. Sandals with socks, Nepalese tote bags, Winter pullovers under strappy summer dresses...I left them all behind when I was 12. Well the socks and sandals thing, you know how that ended. I'm ignoring the lot of them.
I'll keep wearing black and white, and to hell with it making me look washed out. I like it and I can wear all my other stuff, like scarves and jewels with it and not worry about looking like I walked out the door without checking myself in the mirror, which I truly think is what some of these style queens do. That's my opinion, and like others, I'm entitled to it. But then again, I'm not making a living out of flogging my opinion as solid gold style know-how. Because you see, that's all these things are...somebody's opinion. Someone who doesn't know you, doesn't understand your life, or your climate or your budget, telling you, who they don't know from a bar of soap, how to dress. It's so silly. These things, I've decided, are actually written for people who are already 'stylish' and who can probably, in their suburb, get away with lurex socks and high heeled sandals, and Nepalese tote bags. Alas where I live, that's likely to elicit pointing and stares.
Some home truths for me.
The one single piece of useful advice I found, was to look at photos where you're happy with your outfit and build from there. So I did that.
Here I am with my naturally curly 'going grey' hair and my specs, wearing black and hoop earrings and lots of silver a la Stevie, at my nieces 21st birthday earlier this year...
...and here's me, no specs, with my totally silver, straightened hair, wearing white and pearls, more like a Charlotte understated-ness, at home.
Not much between them really is there. But I'm comfortable and happy in both photos. I like my plain necklines because I love my scarves, and necklaces. I like bare wrists because I have a beautiful collection of bracelets and rings, real ones, not acrylic ones, that my husband has gifted me over the years, and I don't want my clothing competing with them. I like my skinny pants and my fabulous Lanvin ballet flats and pearl emerald brogues. I like my hair long and flowing and think it's actually my best feature, so I'm not covering it with berets and hat boxes and other silliness. I like Chanels advice to look in the mirror and remove one thing before leaving the house. That's stood me in good stead.
So maybe that's me. Good old plain Jane, in black or white featuring a plain neckline and skinny pants, long floaty or plain unadorned shirts, ballet flats or brogues on my feet, with pearls or silver and a fab ring or bracelet, but never both together. 
With that settled in my mind, I think Charlotte Ramplings 'understated' is probably the right way to move forward.
From now on though, I'll try to be less plain Jane, throwing in a touch more Stevie from time to time, whilst sticking to my neutrals, pearls and silver.
That's what suits me for now, for where I am in life. Maybe it will change someday. We shall see.
 One thing's for sure though.
If I'm dishing out advice, it's on what makes you look FAB, no matter your weight, age, stage of life or budget.
Not bossy boots stuff on what colour, when and where.
That's a choice for you to make.
Sharing at...
Simply Neutrals

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gifts from the heart...

Learning to gift from the heart, not the wallet, is an important life skill, and one I've worked hard to instil in my children. It gets harder all the time with the plethora of inexpensive gifts flooding the market, and often even I am tempted to just shell out ten bucks for some shiny trinket or other. But really, it's always going to look like you ran out and spent ten bucks without thinking too much, isn't it. It's a zero effort kinda option.
Frankly, there are a zillion other options for less than $10, which are far more appealing and more memorable, that the ones on offer at the shopping centre.
For teens, it's especially difficult, as unless you're prepared to shell out for the latest thing, your trinket is likely to be welcomed with far less enthusiasm than you may have hoped.
I've been coaching my daughter to make gifts for friends over buying them, for several years now. She's now nearly sixteen, and will be off to University in a couple of years, and I am confident that even as a financially bereft student, she will be well equipped to gift generously and from the heart.
The rose petal cupcakes at the top of my post, were baked by her for a friends birthday, just last week. A packet mix that included icing mix,  and some rose themed cupcake wrappers, edible rose petals (which we always have...they make any cake look extra special), pink food colouring and pink metallic cachous, plus half an hour of her time, produced these little darlings. Aren't they adorable? Her friend was thrilled to bits.
We made this one a couple of years ago when she was just a tween. It's what is called a Tall Cupcake, and it's ideal when you want to gift just one special thing. It's a basic cake batter, baked in a well cleaned recycled tin, like a baked beans tin, to give the tall cylindrical shape. You spray the tin liberally with cooking spray before baking the batter, and remove the base with a can opener to release the baked cake. We rolled some purchased fondant out, and used the can to cut a perfect round of icing to sit on top. She tinted some fondant yellow and some green, and fashioned a lemon to finish it, as it was a lemon and poppyseed cake. A half a sheet of vellum, printed with delicate green ivy, was then wrapped around the cake and a natural raffia tie finished it off. It was presented in a gift box, surrounded by shredded paper, and it looked and smelled gorgeous.

These jam drops were made for friends and family last Christmas and they were a huge hit. The polka dotted cellophane bags are available at discount stores and party suppliers. Topped with shiny red ribbon, they look very festive!

Now these I think, were her friends favourites. So simple, it's ridiculous. They're oversized marshmallows, threaded on to skewers, inside the same cellophane bags. Quick, easy and impressive.

Cute little gingerbread cookies drizzled with melted white chocolate took all of an hour, and were lapped up by the Dance class. Who doesn't like gingerbread?

And the Piece` de Resistance...the Mockingjay cake she made for her bestie last year. I helped her with the Ombre icing, but the fondant Mockingjay, painted with edible gold paint, was all her own work.
The most expensive thing here was the Mockingjay cake, and it still cost under $30, and only that much because we had to buy all of the ingredients. We could make another tomorrow for under $10 as we still have leftover gold paint, fondant and food colourings.
The funny thing is, that while she was a bit shy about it at first, and wasn't sure how her friends would react, she is now known as the Baking Queen in her social circle, and her friends clamour for her home made goodies. At only 15, that's a bit of a feather in her cap I think!
She's currently working on ideas for two friends birthday cakes, and I think they'll be winners too.
And just to show it's not all about baking and food, she's currently knitting this lush, darling baby pink rug for her 3 year old niece (my granddaughter). Nubby, soft pink yarn, on oversized needles, knitted in plain stitch only, and it looks and feels like a cloud. The huge needles make the work go faster, and the nubby yarn hides a multitude of little knitting mistakes. She'll improve as she goes along, but this has been a great beginner project for her, and one I know her little niece is going to love. Total cost $12. We saw a similar one in an upmarket baby shop for $120. Those shops are great....but for inspiration only!
You don't have to spend a lot of money to gift generously and memorably. A gift of your time can be just as lovely.
How do you gift from the heart?

Monday, November 23, 2015

War on TV Chefs #5..Invent your own recipes...No Bake Slice

In this series, I'm waging war on TV chefs.
Since when did we need a television personality telling us how to feed our families?
Sure it's nice to have cookbooks around with famous faces on them, and sure, some of those recipes are useful. But I can tell you now, that for every recipe I've ever accumulated with a famous name or face attached to it, I have dozens that I use daily, that are handed down from my Mum, Nanna, Aunty Myrtle, or ones that I've devised myself over the years.
Those are the recipes that feed my family, week in, week out. And dare I say, against the tide of Masterchefs out there, they are the ones that most impress my friends too. They are the recipes 'born of necessity' as the saying goes. The ones where you don't have something on hand and the hungry hoardes are on your heels, so you substitute something else, and a whole new family favourite is discovered.
So one of my aims in this series, is to empower you to invent your own recipes.
Inventing your own recipes is a foreign idea, isn't it? We're all brainwashed into thinking that only chefs and TV personalities can do that. What nonsense! You are just as capable of finding a blend of ingredients that will produce a delicacy for your family, as they are. Moreso, if truth be known.
I used to follow recipes slavishly too. I thought the glossy books and their glamorous authors knew more than I did. It was only when I noticed that one very notable TV chef was stealing recipes from Ethnic cuisine that I myself had been making for years as part of my family repertoire, and that another simply bakes the same things over and over with different flavours, that I realised it's just a trick to get us to buy their books and DVDs, and watch their shows so that they can continue to have their adventures paid for by sponsors. Sure their latest book might only be $20, but if two million people buy it, even if their cut is only a single dollar per sale (quite likely), that's still a hefty profit for doing something that you can do yourself.
I've known friends who just about have apoplexy when they're missing a 'vital' ingredient for let's say, stir fry, or bolognaise. Huh? You just add something else similar (always remembering that you replace like for like, and salty/sour/sweet/earthy/spicy is your guide), and make do. Make do is an old idea ripe for resurrection too, and I'll come to that in another post.
There are a whole host of ideas surrounding recipe creation, that I'll cover in the coming weeks and months, but let me give you a really simple example.
The humble No Bake Slice.
They're the ones where you take a packet of store purchased cookies or crunchy breakfast cereal, and turn them into a yummy treat by crushing them, adding stuff to the crumbs and chilling the mixture into a base to firm it up, and end by finishing it with a delish topping. Where's the mystery in that?
We eat gluten free here, and due to circumstances beyond my control, I have had no oven for nearly six months. What a frustration for me, but I can tell you, it taught me a few things. In order to make those little lunch box and afternoon tea treats to which my family were accustomed, I had to reinvent the No Bake Slice and make it interesting enough to consume in different incarnations, over a long period of time.
To be honest, the No Bake Slice is a godsend in hot weather. No oven to deal with for a start, and very little cleaning up either, so even though I now have a new oven installed, the No Bake Slice is here to stay.
If you Google No Bake Slice, literally hundreds of recipes will appear. They'll all specify a type of cookie or cereal to use, a particular topping .and we all assume that unless we have those ingredients on hand, we can't produce a delicious slice.
But breaking it down, any cookie, nuts or crunchy breakfast cereal, can be made into a crumbly base (even home baked cookies), and that + binding ingredients + topping = yummy slice.
Step 1. So first of all, you need your cookie crumbs or whatever, crushed. You can use a food processor if you like, but I just break my ingredients up slightly, fold them inside a tea towel, and bash the heck out of them with a meat mallet. Specifying that you must use a particular kitchen appliance to produce family treats and meals is another ruse that we've all been brainwashed into believing.
Step 2. The next ingredient is something that binds the crumbs together to form the base. That is usually a solid oil that's been melted (butter, margarine, copha, chocolate, coconut oil), and a sweet, sticky syrup (sweetened condensed milk, honey, golden syrup, molasses, treacle). You can vary your slices enormously simply by choosing different combinations of solid oil and sticky syrup. So if you have half a cup of melted butter, you need up to two thirds of a cup of condensed milk, or any variation on that idea. That's enough to bind the equivalent of a packet of bought cookies or a couple of cups of breakfast cereal. I make my own condensed milk by mixing water, milk powder and sugar, and microwaving it. I don't measure, I don't use a recipe, I just make it so it looks and tastes right to me. If your cookies or cereal are already very sweet, you can really just use the melted solid oil, but it must be an oil that reverts to solid upon refrigeration or your slice will not hold together.
 This mixture gets added to the crumbs, mixed until it's all combined well, and pressed firmly with clean hands, into the base. I'd use one full packet of bought gluten free cookies per slice, so two packets to form these two slices. But if someone's raided the packet before I get to it, and there's one or two missing, well, so what.
Here's my two completed bases, after chilling in the fridge for an hour.
Step 3. Next is your topping. Now depending on how busy I am, what's in the pantry, and what's in the fruit bowl, I'll make a gooey topping like peanut butter, nutella, caramel or poached fruit/custard and a glaze, and a less fussy one that's a frosting or icing, or even just a drizzle of melted chocolate.
To use a sandwich spread like peanut butter to make a topping, you need to add something to firm it up a bit. Butter or margarine and brown sugar, which is dense and sticky, will do this. I experimented a bit and decided that a ratio of about one part butter to two parts brown sugar and three parts peanut butter gives a gooey, but firm topping. I tried a few different ideas though, and none of them were inedible! I melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the spread and sugar, and stir it till smooth. It gets poured over one of the bases, and chilled well.
For a runny icing, I just add a couple of teaspoons of fruit juice of any kind to a cup or so of sifted icing sugar in a bowl, and pour it over the slice. For a frosting, I'll add softened butter to the icing sugar, beating it well, and adding flavours like a squeeze of lemon juice and some lemon rind, flavour essences, coconut, cocoa, coffee and so on. You can then sprinkle anything you like over the icing or frosting if you think it needs it, or for variety. Last week, I kept a couple of spoonfuls of the crumb base aside, and mixed that through the frosting for the second slice to give it a bit of texture and it's a new favourite. It's a similar texture to chopped nuts, without the nuts!
A layer of thick custard, covered with poached fruit and a jelly (jello) or jam glaze is another nice one, and it can be any fruit  that you've simmered with a little water and sugar till soft. Drain and cool the poached fruit, arrange it over a layer of thick custard on top of the crumb base. Make your glaze by mixing packet jelly (jello) with one third the specified amount of water, and cooling it before pouring over the fruit. Or alternatively, just warm some jam in the microwave, and brush it over the fruit to make it glossy.
Do you see how it works?
Crushed cookies + solid oil and syrup + filling and/or topping = yummy slice of your own invention.

Here's my Peanut butter one and the one with the frosting into which I folded crushed crumb base and lemon zest. I can assure you both were scrumptious.
Some other favourites here, are the poached fruit and custard, the peanut butter one above with strawberry jam or chocolate warmed and drizzled over it, tinned caramel warmed to liquefy it slightly, and poured over, chilled, then covered with a layer of drained sweet Greek Yoghurt and some grated chocolate, lemon icing, lime juice icing, orange icing (always with juice and zest) and of course, melted chocolate. All very yummy, and all highly experimental initially!
Don't be scared. You can do it.
Let me know how you go.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Five Star Frou-Frou #28...Special Festive Lovelies...

Free Standing Raspberry and Glitter Trifle
Look at this little bit of fabulousness from Only Crumbs Remain! A freestanding Glitter Trifle! I know what we're having for Christmas dessert! Click on the pic to see more!
Monika awes me yet again with this gorgeous Ballerina take on the traditional Christmas stocking...I know a few Ballerinas who will be gifted one of these for Chrissy....
apple arrangement
...and I just love Carols take on a Thanksgiving or Christmas centre piece featuring apples. Isn't it lovely?
Please visit these bloggers and show your appreciation...thankyou :)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

War on TV Chefs #4....Prep Day...

We've been discussing how to feed your family well on a budget, and how TV chefs have sort of messed that up for us all.
My thoughts are that family meals do NOT have to be restaurant worthy, and that families are stressing themselves out, trying to either imitate TV chefs and reality TV programmes, or alternatively, not even trying, and resorting to convenience food because they don't think they can measure up. It's a terrible side effect of reality TV, honestly.
I'm working with young families to get them back to basics. Back to the way our Nans cooked. Back to growing a little, baking a little, and just being organised.
I thought I'd share that here with you.
In Part 1, we talked about finding healthier and less expensive options to feed our family, that don't entail buying unhealthy or overpriced convenience food and takeaway. I shared a case history of a young family I am currently mentoring, and how we jointly came up with some budget slashing meal ideas and recipes. That post is here.
In Part 2, we started a basic menu plan, which takes into consideration not just what you want to eat, but what day of the week to eat it according to your family's schedule, and how to allow time to have much of it partially prepared the day before, so that meals are on the table quickly and easily. We also looked at doing a pre-shopping stocktake of the refrigerator and pantry, and how to use leftovers efficiently. That post is here.
Part 3 shared looking at our menu plan, checking it against our pre-shopping stocktake, and then devising our shopping list, dividing the list into organised categories like Chilled, Meat, Fruit and Veg and Dry Goods, to make the shopping experience easier and faster. I shared some of my strategies for tallying your spend before you shop, and culling the list if necessary to fit your budget for the week, and how that doesn't mean changing the meal, but perhaps just substituting the ingredients used. This post also discussed using leftovers in delicious ways, reducing waste, and ensuring there are grab and go healthy and home made snacks so the family don't feel deprived. Read it here.
So today, I'm going to tell you how I go about my prep, not just on shopping day, but every day.
Here's my big secret. 

Prepare tomorrows menu, today.
That's it. Not much of a secret really. But you will simply not believe how much difference this makes to the way your household runs. If you have menu planned according to your schedule, and prep tomorrows breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks today, you will never go back to buying takeaway or expensive convenience foods again.
Not only that but in my posts on living with depression and disorganisation here and here, it was generally agreed, that making a list, having a plan, and spending some time today preparing for tomorrow is a great strategy.
If your feet can hit the floor tomorrow, knowing that whatever lies ahead, your family will eat well, and that there will not be any mad last minute dashes to the supermarket where you'll overspend, you can start the day calm and confident.
So here's my menu again...
Note that I plan all meals and snacks because last time I looked, we don't just eat dinner. People who plan for dinner only are still ahead for sure, but if you're going to do it, why not include all meals and snacks and really do it well?
And here's a close up of my Daily Prep column. The link for this menu planner is in Part 2.

Looking at that list, you can see that I include making yoghurt, which alone saves me a minimum of $1000 a year because we use it in place of sour cream, as a replacement for butter in baking, as a side for desserts, and in parfaits for breakfast as well as just for snacks and breakfasts on the run. I'm also preparing salad mix, baking, boiling eggs for Chefs Salad for lunches, clearing out the fridge and ensuring things are used up in a timely fashion half way through the week, and making things like crepe batter and steamed rice. I would usually spend less than half an hour a day on tomorrows prep, but it saves so much time and money.
Now I know you're thinking 'but if I'm prepping anyway, why wouldn't I just prep for today?'. Well, you can of course. But as I've said before, this is a mental strategy as much as a financial one. You want your cute breakfast parfaits sitting in the fridge ready to go, just as if you were buying them from your favourite cafĂ©`, you want goodies for your kids or your own lunch sitting there all ready to enjoy, you want dinner for tonight marinating or sliced and diced, so that if the day goes pear shaped, that at least is done and dusted. By the time you get up in the morning, it's too late to make parfaits for breakfast and freeze mashed fruit and yoghurt into cubes for smoothies. The kids will grab their own lunch and it won't be what you want them to have, and because you've started the day on the wrong foot, you're not going to be motivated to do too much at all, let alone make a healthy lunch for yourself or a lovely dinner for the family. Does that make sense?
Shopping day usually involves a bit more prep for me. That's a choice I make. In fact, it starts the day before shopping day, which given what I've just said about being 24 hours ahead, is a no-brainer. I already know that if I don't have my home made Greek Yoghurt done (both savoury and sweet), the fridge cleaned out, my stocktake done, my schedule in front of me and my shopping list finalised, it's going to get ugly.
Some people scour the weekly specials, and occasionally I do that too. However if I shop in the same places consistently, I get to know the specials cycle for things that I buy. It's about 6 weeks for some things, and 12 weeks for others. So I can plan around that anyway. That's up to you.
So, armed with my list, I shop quickly and efficiently, and head straight home. Grocery shopping day is not a social outing for me. I just want to get it done.
Once home, with a refrigerator and pantry cleared and ready to be packed with this weeks food, the unpacking is accomplished without fuss or bother. I have a little strategy where I peel off tamper proof packaging as I go, so things are ready to use. If things need decanting for use tonight or tomorrow, I do that too. Anything I'm about to use for baking or prep, is left out on the bench, lined up ready to go. Packet items are opened and canisters refilled. Extras bought to stock my 'shop' as I call my stockpile, are packed on shelves in our internal stairwell. I try to add one or two things a week to the 'shop', which also saves on last minute dashes to the supermarket. I include shampoo and conditioner, sanitary products, shaving cream and razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste, dishwasher tablets, rice, sugar, teabags, coffee, dehydrated vegetables for the dogs food, and a few tins of things we use a lot like peeled diced tomatoes, coconut milk, and baked beans. As an item is removed from the 'shop', it's written on the shopping list to be replaced. So I am restocking my 'shop' not my pantry, and theoretically, we should never have a situation that requires a mercy dash to the supermarket. We could easily eat for several days on what is in my 'shop', and I frequently use those items to fill Care baskets for friends or family in need or in crisis.
These again, are all things to do that make the routine run smoothly and seamlessly. I can only share what works for me, and what I advise my young families to do. Some of this may work for you, and some may not, but you will find your own rhythm for sure, once you get going.
I now look at my Daily Prep column and tackle what needs doing. I always try to bake something, make a chilled treat, get ahead on the meal prep, and do tomorrows prep today, so there's up to an hour and a half there. But I actually really enjoy it and look forward to it, so it's no imposition.
Mostly once a week on shopping day, I will, in this order:
Make fruit jellies (2 minutes)
Make a no bake slice (10 minutes for the base, 10 more for the topping after the base has chilled)
Bake muffins or a loaf cake in silicone pans so no greasing, lining or cupcake papers involved (5 minutes to mix while slice is chilling, 20 to bake)
Peel and slice veg or salad according to the next days menu (10 minutes. Done while muffins are baking)
Prepare any other items like marinades, stir fry sauce or salad dressing (10 minutes. Done while muffins are cooling)
Make a dip or spread (5 minutes. Eggs or veges are cooking on stovetop while muffins are in oven and after veg prep, and whizzed in my mini food processor in mere seconds)
Make a lush dessert (15 minutes maximum)
That's an hour of work, to be several days ahead and to have lots of things we love to eat, close at hand and ready to go.
The thing is too, that because I make the same things over and over, I really get the routine down to a fine art. Even the best restaurants only change their menu 3 or 4 times a year for the very same reason, and takeways and cafe's never change their menu for that reason too. Think about it. It's an interesting idea isn't it.
I don't even look at recipes or measure any more, because I know the ingredients off by heart, and trust my eye to know what 'looks' like a cup of flour or half a cup of butter. No disasters so far! You can be the same with practice.
That's all based on what my family likes to eat of course too. What does your family like? Because that again is the key. If there's plenty of what they enjoy eating, that's freshly made, to grab and go, you will all eat well and bought treats will be a thing of the past. Your waistline will love you (all things in moderation though, remember!) and so will your bank manager :)
Here's a list of common treat foods and some suggestions for pretty decent substitutes:
Smoothies and Frappe`s: Mash fruit and mix with yoghurt, and freeze in ice cube trays. Empty frozen cubes into ziplock bags and add 2-3 cubes to a cup of chilled milk in a food processor or blender.
Sodas: Add cordial or syrup (homemade if possible) to unflavoured soda water. Better still learn to enjoy unflavoured soda or chilled water, with sliced fruit, fresh or suspended in ice cubes, to infuse it with flavour.
Salty snacks: Roast and spice chick peas or pumpkin seeds. Enjoy the 'crunch' of celery or carrot sticks. Roast chunks of potato or sweet potato and season well with salt and herbs or add frozen chips to your shopping list, encouraging family to eat those instead of the packet crisps. Make huge batches of your favourite dips and have them with rice crackers. Dips are ridiculously easy to make. Roast tiny cubes of pumpkin and keep them in a container in the fridge for a hand to mouth snack. Pan fry chicken breast slivers or use chunks of leftover roast meat, put them in a ziplock bag with iceberg lettuce leaves and a lemon wedge, using the lemon to season it all before you eat with fingers straight from the bag, just like chips (it's a mental war too remember!).
Flavoured coffees and teas: Make your own syrups if you must have these. They are so ridiculously easy, and always simply consist of sugar, water and some sort of flavouring which you can usually buy as an essence. Better still, learn to enjoy the real flavour of the tea of coffee unadulterated.
Chocolates and confectionery: Substitute these with convincing home made replacements. No bake slices are so easy, and once you've had a home made Peanut Butter Slice or Ferrero Rocher Slice, the real deal will be relegated to the once-a-year-on-birthdays basket! Recipes for those, and ideas to invent your own slice recipes, to follow tomorrow. Microwave fudge and brownies are another great quick and easy DIY idea for the sweet tooth of the family.
Favourite takeaways: Sushi, Pizza, KFC, McDonalds burgers, you name it, there's a copycat recipe for it out there somewhere. Google is your friend, and if you follow my 'prep 24 hours ahead' rule, you'll have your favourite on the table in less time than it would take to drive there and buy it. And it will be cheaper, healthier, and better for you.
Does your family have a favourite not listed? Let me know and I'll add it along with some ideas for replacements.
Now I'm not saying this will be smooth sailing from Day One. I've been revising and refining my prep routine for years, and it may take you a while to get the hang of it too. But don't give up. The rewards are there for your health and your budget, I promise.
Tomorrow, I'll share my Invent-your-own-no-bake-slice ideas, and that will be at the top of my Five Star Frou-Frou post. It's such an easy idea, and you'll never look at a TV chef the same way again ;-)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

War on TV Chefs #3....The Shopping List...

I've been waging war on TV Chefs, and so far, we've discussed the ridiculous nature of the meals we're expected to cook courtesy of these lofty folk, and how unrealistic it all is for the average family.
In Part One, I related a case history of a young family I've been working with, and how we slashed their grocery budget and upped their nutrition significantly, with just a few simple tweaks of their menu and shopping list. They're not eating any differently, they're just tackling it in a new way.
In Part Two, we started a basic menu plan, which takes into consideration not just what you want to eat, but what day of the week to eat it according to your family's schedule, and how to allow time to have much of it partially prepared the day before. We also looked at doing a pre-shopping stocktake of the refrigerator and pantry, and how to use leftovers efficiently.
Following that post, I went ahead and did this myself, as I do each week. Or mostly I do. We all have an off week here and there, but I hate it because it always means my food bill doubles!
In my efforts, I discovered that we had 2 large pieces of fish left out of a one kilo bag, that would easily feed three of us, a stray gluten free bread roll that became my daughters afternoon tea, some apples that had gone soft, which became Apple Jelly and Apple Puree` for baking, and a sad looking orange which became a melt and mix refrigerator slice with orange frosting. Nothing gets wasted here!
So now I add those items in to my menu plan or tick off things like one of the fish meals, as I already have one meal of fish. I then look at each meal on my plan, and write the corresponding ingredients on to my list. I remember to check things like flour, baking powder, sugar, spray oil and other cooking ingredients too, to ensure I have everything I need on hand to whip up a few yummies.
So having investigated the depths of the refrigerator, freezer, crisper and pantry, I whittled the shopping list down to this....
Note 1: that my list is divided into Fruit & Veg, Dry, Chilled and Meat. There is no section for convenience, treat, or junk food. Treats and convenience foods are made by me. Junk food in our house, means buying the salsa instead of making it! Your budget friendly shopping list should consist of essentials, not treats. If there's money left over after buying essentials, wouldn't you rather put that towards a great Christmas, or a holiday? Just $20-$30 a week set aside can help you achieve that. I'd rather put $30 towards a holiday, than a bunch of preservative laden food out of boxes and packets.
That said, I also have a policy of adding a little fun into the family menu, so within your essentials list, you should ideally have the capacity to make, or bake, a few treats. Our 'treat menu' this week includes the citrus slice I mentioned earlier, jelly parfaits, home made Greek yoghurt, home made Greek style rice puddings, crepes with poached fruit, hamburgers, fish and hand cut thick chips, and 'pizza' using flat field mushrooms as the base instead of dough. Plenty there, without having to buy a single thing out of a box or packet!
Note 2: that in addition to listing bananas, strawberries and blueberries, which are practically staples in our household, I have also listed separately '20 fruit'. There are three of us and we each eat at least 2 serves of fruit each per day, which is 6 a day or 42 pieces of fruit a week. That's our snacks for the most part, so whilst 42, or even 20 pieces of fruit sounds a lot, it isn't. That is supplemented with Corn Thins served with thin slivers of cheese and topped with salsa (one jar lasts us a month as we use it as a topper, not a dip), or rice crackers and hommus which I make weekly. I bake or make a slice or other sweet treat twice weekly and we have fun things like delicious muffins for breakfast and wraps or tacos or burgers for dinner. That's the extent of our 'junk' food. I know I keep coming back to that, but eliminating prepackaged stuff from our menu, shopping lists, and diet really is the key to success.
Note 3: also that in the 'meat' section of the list, I have listed chicken necks (for the dog as I make his food too), two types of fish, superior cuts of meat, and the 'convenience' of premade burger patties. That's my one concession to premade this week, as we had my son and his wife and their daughters here last night for dinner after a busy weekend, and I'd rather spend time with my darlings than chop onion and herbs for burger patties. Fresh formed burger patties from the supermarket made sense this week. That's where menu planning around your schedule really helps to simplify things.
Now back when I was a single Mum, I'd write my list, and then I'd write the price of each item next to it, in whole numbers. So Bananas, I'd allow $3, and write 3 next to it. Strawberries, I'd allow $4, and write 4. Then that would be my guide to how much I was about to spend. I'd tally that up, and if the total was greater than my available dollars for that week, I'd start culling things. The fruit would be exchanged for something less expensive, so apples in season over Lady Finger bananas (which we love), seasonal mandarins instead of blueberries, and so on. We'd still have the fruit, but we'd just have the less luxurious ones. You don't ditch fruit for Muesli Bars or Potato Chips for example. You replace same with same.
 If the meat tally was blowing the budget and we couldn't cull in other areas, then I'd select less expensive cuts of meat or use meat replacements that were still nutritionally sound, but less expensive. There was many a time we'd have Baked Bean and Bacon Shepherds Pie instead of the traditional meat based one, and frankly my sons enjoyed that more sometimes. Teenaged boys are notorious bottomless! Chicken Wings, marinated in all manner of mixes are a great, tasty and economical replacement for Roast Chicken or Chicken fillets. Our favourite marinade is a mixture of Plum Jam, Chilli Sauce and Soy Sauce. Yum.
Eggs, a great source of protein and always cheap or free if you can keep your own chickens, and can be served as Frittata, Quiche in a filo pastry shell or Souffle Omelettes. Vegetable Lasagna or Vegetable Filo parcels, were other great options for us, back then, and meals that we still love. Reducing your meat intake doesn't have to mean boring meals.
I could always eventually make the budget fit the list, although sometimes it was a very different list by the end!
I've always shopped in different stores if it meant getting a significant saving too. Not in that insane, 'run around the neighbourhood buying the specials, because that's counter productive for the most part. But surprisingly, I can often buy laundry powder, toothpaste and soap, for a better price at the pharmacy than at the supermarket. Likewise for basic painkillers and cough medicines. The generic brands at the pharmacy are exactly the same as the name brands, and can be significantly less expensive. This goes for the discount '$2' stores too. A tube of toothpaste that costs $5 in the supermarket, might be $2 there because it has different packaging. Even IKEA, if you have one near you, has some great prices on strange things that you wouldn't go to IKEA for usually, like salmon fillets, cordial, good coffee, kitchen storage containers and bags, and condiments. A quarterly trip to IKEA, can be well worthwhile in that respect. as long as you are not tempted by the millions of other things that you see at!
So think laterally and keep your eyes peeled for the bargains. Get to know the regular price of the things that are on your list consistently, so you know a real bargain when you see one. 
My shopping list, listed above, was all sourced at Aldi and Coles (just for four items not available at Aldi) this week, and my total spend was $185 at Aldi and another $12 at Coles. So a grand total of $197 for a family of three plus a dog. And we're eating well, even luxuriously. In that shop too, I bought sufficient Aldi Barramundi and Salmon to last us for three weeks. That converts to just $66 per person in our household for a superior (but not TV chef or restaurant worthy perhaps) family friendly menu for all meals and all snacks and a few treats. Granted, we are talking food content of the shopping list and not cleaning products or other household items, but I stockpile these or make my own, and we'll get to that in the coming weeks. This truly was my shopping list for this week.
So really, we're not talking about the sort of frugality where the goal is to feed a family of six for $500 a month. I don't do that these days as my circumstances are different than they were 20+ years ago, but I certainly have in the past. If you're looking for that, there are plenty of bloggers out there who do write about that sort of planning, and do it very well, but it's not my area of interest at this stage of my life. I'm simply advocating a sensible, healthy, down to earth approach, where you eat well, enjoy treats that are home made and/or healthy, that suits your budget. If you allow $70 per person per week, and follow my guidelines, no matter the size of your family, I bet you'll spend less than you currently do.
Here's my fridge, cleaned out, and ready to be stocked with all of our lovely fresh food. Annabel over at The Bluebirds are Nesting, did a great post on refrigerator organisation recently too. She has a great series on Organisation, and one on Pantries and Preparedness that is worth a read. Her ideas are always awesome.
And here's my vege crisper below. We always buy heaps of veg and fruit so it's always absolutely full when I unpack on shopping day. This is what's left after last weeks shopping and meal prep. More than half of what remains all on the right hand side, will be used in the next 24 hours, including the herbs, cherry tomatoes, capsicum, carrots and some of the onions, so then it will be really empty. If you are menu planning and doing your meal prep properly, your fridge really should look very bare by the time shopping day arrives. A bare refrigerator is a win, not a lose!
I grow our herbs, and my son grows a lot as well, so we never buy herbs any more. This is a great strategy, because that alone, saves us around $60-$100 a month. I grow Thyme, Green Spring Onion, Oregano, and Mint. He grows Coriander (Cilantro), Basil, Purple Basil, Lemongrass, Purple Garlic, Red and Brown Onions (still tiny, but going well!), and Parsley. So between us, we have heaps. The ones in the ziplock bags are from him. Because they're fresh out of his garden, they last at least two weeks this way. Gosh knows how long the 'fresh' herbs in Coles have been sitting there because they're soggy and horrible after a couple of days! I can highly recommend growing just a couple of basic herbs to make meals more tempting and aromatic.
So once I've whittled my budget down to a manageable total, I plan my shopping expedition, ensuring that chilled goods will be exposed to the elements for as little time as humanly possible. If I'm going to the pharmacy and the discount store, I do that first, then finish the shopping at the supermarket and butcher. It can mean a satisfyingly quick trip to the supermarket that way!
That also means going to the appropriate shopping district, where there is a discount store, a pharmacy and the supermarket I want, all close together. That too, is part of the planning.
Here's my refrigerator, restocked after a shop.
As I've unpacked, I've checked my home made Greek Yoghurt, made last night, and decanted it into recycled tubs, seen above top shelf. You can also see the refrigerator pickles, top shelf left, made with the cukes that were a bit sad when I cleaned the refrigerator last week. I've left chicken breasts in the bottom of the refrigerator, for some to be poached and shredded, and some to be frozen tomorrow. And left space to refrigerate the melt and mix slice I was making. The soft fruit like peaches are refrigerated for later in the week, and bananas and strawberries, as most perishable, are eaten first. Make sure you plan for that too, to minimise spoilage.
Jelly is the most inexpensive and waistline friendly treat, and we make up jelly parfaits a couple of times a week. So that's part of my routine on shopping day. They're the immediately gratifying treat that the family likes to see when they know I've shopped. This is an inexpensive and easy idea, that gives them the grab and go satisfaction that you get with convenience food. Remember that this is a mental war as much as anything else! These pretty ones are strawberry jelly with blueberries in little pink IKEA depression-style glasses.
And as reward for all that hard work and effort, it's Cajun Pork Fillet for dinner, served with home made Apple Jelly made from those soft apples mentioned at the beginning of my post.

 Here's my Apple Jelly and Apple Baking Puree` recipe. Don't be put off by the long instructions. It's actually really simple, a bit like making toffee.
Mimi's Apple Jelly
Your ingredients are:
Apples...any amount
Lemon juice
Plus you also need:
Muslin or cheesecloth
Wooden spoon
Tall jug or large bowl
Small jar/s or container/s for the finished Apple Jelly
Food processor to make the puree` from the cooked apple (my little one was $15 in KMart)
Here's how:
Make a space in your refrigerator for the jug or bowl to sit. It's going to need to be in there for several hours or overnight.
Cut the apples into chunks, cores, seeds and all, leaving peels on for the pectin content.
Put it all in a saucepan, and cover them with water.
Bring them to the boil, cover the pan, leaving the lid slightly askew, and simmer until very soft. Don't squish them or your apple jelly will be cloudy.
Meanwhile, prepare your large square of muslin or cheesecloth (or clean unused Chux will do too), making sure it's large enough to hold the apples, and leave some length to tie the bundle to the wooden spoon. You're going to suspend the muslin square with the apples in it, inside the jug or bowl, to allow the apple juice to drain from them. Drape it over your fine sieve, and have the jug or bowl next to it.
Once very soft, strain the apples through the muslin inside the sieve , reserving what little liquid is left and putting it in the jug. Don't tip it down the sink like I once did!
Gather the muslin up by the corners. Secure it with an elastic band if you want, but I usually just tie it by the corners, to the handle of the spoon. Suspend the bundle of cooked apple inside the jug with the handle of the spoon across the top of your jug or bowl to hold it in place. Again, do not push or squish the apples in an attempt to extract more juice. Leave it there for at least 3-4 hours or overnight if you can.
Once drained, put the cooked apple through the food processor until smooth. Put into ziplock bags and freeze, and use this puree` in place of butter or oil in baking. Very healthy and very yummy. I generated about a cup and a half of baking puree this time.
Now put a saucer in the freezer to chill as you'll use this to test when your Apple Jelly is done.
Measure the strained liquid and put it in a saucepan. To each cup of liquid (or part thereof), add 3/4 cup sugar, and 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice. I only had about 3/4 cup of liquid from my five apples, so I added half a cup of sugar and a teaspoon of lemon juice.
Simmer this like you would any jam, until it reduces slightly and a spoonful of the jelly put on the chilled saucer and left for a minute, wrinkles a bit when you push at it with your finger. Sort of like testing toffee in a glass of water, you're looking for 'wrinkle stage'!
Pour the finished jelly into your waiting container/s.
I only got a single, full, tiny containers worth of Apple jelly from my batch this time...
...but that was still enough to put on crepes for dessert with whipped cream, and to serve with our pork fillet, seen above. I saw a similar sized jar of Pink Lady Apple Jelly in our local deli for $11.95, so don't tell me it wasn't worth it! Add to that the additional enjoyment we gained from our crepes and pork fillet, and the satisfaction from generating something so luscious from food that I would have once thrown in the bin, and it's worth that little bit of effort.
Sorry for the long post. I hope you've stuck with me!
On Thursday, we'll start prep together, and I'll share some of my secrets for having a menu plan that runs like clockwork all week long.