Short Update on Budgeting

The cookbooks aren’t even at my house yet. I am still at least a week from flipping the switch on this. And yet I am noticing the change in my view of things already.

krispieThis afternoon I decided to go out for a soda and a rice cereal treat. I brought leftovers for lunch and I’ve been having a rough week. Also, I had taken note that my Chobani yogurt I brought with me this morning on sale was 25% of my daily budget (keeping in mind I am not yet on that budget).

You know what else is 25% of my daily budget on sale? That rice cereal treat from the convenience store on the corner. Granted they go on sale every week for a day. You can set your calendar to it. But that is still $1 when my total budget for the day will be $4. So this is a luxury I won’t have for a long time. And look at it, consider that I just called that a luxury.

cherry-pepsiDon’t even get me started on the soda. If we still had Coke machines in the stadium I would still be dropping $1.50 on a bottle – around 37% of the daily budget. But at $1.79 a bottle (plus tax), that is about half the daily amount I have to spend. Even if I find a sale, the lowest price I am likely to get is $.25 per can of soda. Which means I will get one can a day at best. I should be drinking more water anyhow.

Last – and by no means least – is beer. I was listening to the morning show talk craft beer with the owner of Trixie’s Liquor on the morning show. This lead to me making a mental list of the beers I wanted to pick up for our family vacation to Door County this weekend. A bomber of Trixie’s Forbidden Fruit (a grapefruit IPA made by Mob Craft for the store) is around $8.99. You see where I’m going, right?

Mrs. Zombie and I have been working budgets for a number of years now. The idea is to pay off all debts, a goal we should hit in 5 or 6 years. The mortgage being the only debt the last 4 of that. So even though we can afford more than $4 a day, and can afford to pick up that six pack of craft beer for the trip this weekend (much less the trip itself), this is a really strong exercise in seeing what it’s like on the other foot. Without relying on the memory of the “Mac and Cheese Days” long past.

naptime-gingerNot to mention if we’re going to take our budding new rock climbing puppy out to Aladdin’s favorite park on the anniversary of his death, you better damned well believe I will be having a beer that night. Of course, realistically, Ginger will probably look more like the photo here all weekend long. Which is fine. I have work to do.

One More Caveat

I also came across one more caveat that I need to enter into the challenge. Every week I go to my writer’s group on Thursday. We meet at one of two spots where we can get coffee and a bite to eat. Many times I will just get coffee and a cookie or tart because Chocolaterian makes some of the best treats and their coffee is something brewed by Walter White. Seriously, that shit is addictive! And more over, as we use their space every week I feel it would be rude to not “pay the rent” in some fashion. Especially when I am able to. So I will have dinner when I get home (in budget), but at the cafe I will partake of coffee and a cookie.

And in “payment” for this, I won’t get coffee on Thursday mornings on my way into work. So really it isn’t one more caveat to the project, but an addendum to an existing one.

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New Project/New Challenge

I became aware this week, that this time last year I was elbows deep in a project to do 30 short stories in 30 days. That worked out to only 23 short stories, but over 50,000 words for the month. During one of my worst months in a really long time. But what am I doing this year?

Sure, I’m still doing book reviews, my bi-weekly game and helping out with the monthly D&D at Pegasus Games here in town. But I was doing most of that last year too. I’m feeling like I need a goal… a specific project… to light a fire under me. So I came up with one.

$4 a Day

good-and-cheapFor a while now I have been considering the challenge that some politicians and other public figures have done to eat on $4 a day – the amount that people on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) live on. Though this year I found the book Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown. Not only is it a cookbook to guide you through this process, but it has a program where if you buy a copy, a copy is given to a program or person in need that cannot afford it. Which appeals to me, because if you’re using SNAP or just living on $4 a day up-assisted, chances are you don’t have the money for a cookbook.

So I ordered the book to work with the mason jar meal cookbook I also picked up. And decided to go on a challenge to hit the $4 a day for a month. I figure this is also a good way to get my kitchen and pantry in order. Plus, I think my wife is secretly getting tired of risotto (my newest go-to dish to make).

The Caveats

I have two caveats that are for the protection of others as well as myself. My $4 a day limit does not include my morning coffee. If I don’t have that, someone will get hurt. That limit will prevent me from grabbing a green tea lemonade on the trip home though.

Additionally, my wife only is bound by the $4 a day meals if I am making them for her. My lunches will be made with this in mind, and I will not be going out for lunch at all. She isn’t bound by that, because I don’t want to get hurt. And if she wants a coffee on the way home, I can get her one. Just not one for myself.

The Reasons

Mostly because I want to. I have lived through hungry times. I called them The Mac and Cheese Days™. And honestly, I have family members living in those days right now. I want to prove to myself that it is possible to eat healthy at that amount. Limit the sugars, starches and salt in the diet. Limit the processed foods too.

The Reality

latteLast night, while going through the bookstore on the way home, I picked up the books I needed, a latte, and desert for after dinner. Partially it was a craving for something I knew I wouldn’t be having for a long time, and partially it was a peace offering for the wife I was about to put on rations. (Sort of… let’s face it, she can get seconds if she wants.)

Consider the triple venti latte I picked up in the cafe last night. It was an after-thought to get a coffee with my books. A little extra to keep me going. And it cost $5 to get it – a full 25% higher than the daily amount of money I would be spending on food soon. It tastes more like a luxury if you consider it a day and a half worth of food.

cheesecakeThen there was the blueberry cheesecake we had for desert. Without even considering the fact that it was a heavily processed food (lending to high sodium and fat content), it was $4.50. Just over the daily amount of money for food. Again, much more decadent factoring in that would soon be all I would eat in a day based on budget.

Grocery shopping is different though. You’re getting steaksfresh food that you’re making yourself (or at least you have the ability to do so). And you can get foods on sale, purchasing items when they’re  in season and such. But the bacon-wrapped sirloins I picked up last night were on sale 5 for $10, or $2 each. So that one small steak is half the budget for a day. Possible, but that does restrict what you can do with the rest of the day.

The Format

I will be posting updates as I go, possibly including some of the recipes as I post. I’m Italian, we don’t do well sticking to the script. Of course, when I have to calculate the cost per meal, I will have to curb that as much as possible. Which leads me to the summary per meal.

thug-kitchenAt the end of each post on meals – including the cost per meal – I will be posting revisions. In the event I have more than $4 to spend on a day (due to budgeting days previous or simply opening the budget back up again), I will list alterations I would do to the recipe as shown. Like upgrading the cut of steak (or size) used. Adding fresh basil into the risotto instead of sprinkling in the dried herbs from my pantry. You get the idea.

Also, in addition to the mason jar cookbook I have, I will be looking into some of the recipes from the Thug Kitchen. While the title is what originally drew me to it, the content held me there. The idea of cooking/eating like you give a damn what you’re stuffing in your hole is one many of us have gone away from. I intend to make the trip back.

The Timing

The cookbook will be at my door Friday. Though we are also taking Ginger on her first Door County trip this weekend. We’re going to see how well she likes Aladdin’s favorite park. She did show signs of wanting to be a rock climbing dog this past week. So the actual budgeting and diet will likely start the last week of this month, or the first week in August. I’m sure you’ll notice when this happens.

Steak Fajita “Stew”

Yeah, not the most exciting “here’s a sample from my work in progress” blog entry, but someone requested a recipe for a dish I made for lunches this past weekend. I’m going to let you all in on a secret, but it’s… y’know… a secret. So don’t tell anyone. Most of my cooking sports little to no recipes.

Once in a while I’ll venture out (like the chicken tortilla soup recipe, which did need some adjusting to get the Mrs. Zombie seal of approval), but mostly I’m making this shit up as I go along. I hear tell it’s the Italian way. That’s really the only excuse I can come up with for how I can eyeball amounts and remember the recipes that I’ve been brushing up over the past couple of months. That and a strange memory that will hold onto small details. For example, when I couldn’t remember the cupcake base I’d been doing for the past year and a half I knew that I was having problems. I hadn’t eaten anything in over five hours. When you eat five or six small meals a day, you do not go five hours without food. Not without a price to pay that is. And memory really is the second thing to go.

That said, I do remember exactly what went into this experiment. My goal was to make some fajita stuff to put into a tortilla or a pita bread and eat. I made this in the slow cooker as I was making steak, mashed potatoes and pan seared asparagus for supper that night. And doing laundry. June frickin’ Cleaver with a beard – that’s me. (Note to Self: buy a pearl necklace.)

Okay, by the numbers…

  1. Chop up 3-4 jalapeno peppers. For this, I used the two and a half I had left over from the cornbread experiment. Put them into the slow cooker. (make sure to clean out all the seeds)
  2. Chop up 1 pasilla pepper into small bits. Put this into the slow cooker. (If you don’t have them fresh, get the dried one and stew it in olive oil first. Shoot for fresh if possible.) (make sure to clean out all the seeds)
  3. Note on 2. If you can’t find pasilla try for ancho chiles or a pepper on the lighter side of spicy, like a poblano pepper. If you like the hot, you could replace with 2-3 serrano peppers, but you’re rolling the bones on that one. 😉
  4. Slice up one large or two medium sweet onions. If you like cooking, look into a mandolin slicer. You can get them as cheap at $20 in a big box store. I use mine to julienne the onion. Larger julienne slicing if you still want to be able to see the onions in the finished product. Guess what you do with it when you’re finished slicing. 🙂
  5. Open up two large cans of diced tomatoes. I use canned instead of fresh because I’m lazy. Just make sure the cans you get aren’t sporting a bunch of sodium in them. Low sodium where possible. Put them into the slow cooker.
  6. Throw in 2 pounds of lean stew meat. You can trim it if you wish or not if you’re lazy. (Note: were I to want more stew in this stew, I’d oil the meat and brown it covered in whole wheat flour and spices. Stew wasn’t what I originally was going for though.)
  7. For flavor I sprinkled in some grey sea salt, ancho powder and the Penzey’s chili mix I use (good cayenne kick to it). I also crushed in a couple of cloves of garlic – I’m Italian, it’s a law.
  8. At this point I considered adding some low-sodium V8 to give it more liquid for the cooking, but I figured it would be a bit spicy for Mrs. Zombie so I wanted to tone it down. That meant some sweet and something to counter the oil. I had grabbed a can of Pepsi that was in the frig, but stopped. I went over to the pantry and picked up a can of Vanilla Coke. Soda is awesome for slow cooker meats, but I thought the vanilla would be just enough to tone down the spice but leave the flavor.
  9. Set to cook for 4-6 hours. (The high setting on our slow cooker.)

End result was something that my wife ate as a soup. She loved it, which showed me two things. One that the vanilla was a good call. And two, that she’s learning to accept the peppers in everyday life. 😉

And for the record, the steak fajita “stew” pairs up all sorts of nice with the jalapeno bacon cornbread I made the day before. Still is in fact.

My wife tried to kill me…

So after the first week of dieting a number of things have happened. I started eating more, which triggered losing weight. I bounced back from a flare up of my spinal injury. I started the rebranding of the blog but didn’t finish it this weekend as planned. Produced several batches of soup and stew in individual sized containers. But most of all, was almost killed by my wife.

I will get into the rest of it later, but let’s focus on the statement that will invoke me getting “the look” – that’s right, the part about almost getting killed. The statement itself is a bit of an exaggeration, but makes a more humorous image than “my wife tried to give me a hypoglycemic event.” What actually happened is that we went out for breakfast before going grocery shopping. A “Fit Slam” at Denny’s was the meal of the day – 550 calories of egg whites, tomatoes, spinach, muffin and fruit. That was at 9:30 in the morning. Shopping lasted until around 2:30-3:00.

Consider that the diet program gives my wife considerably less calories per day than I get. Now consider for the last week I have focused on eating five small “meals” a day. I had the breakfast in the morning, but had skipped the mid-morning snack of fruit or yogurt, the light lunch and was well on my way to skipping the midafternoon snack. It was bad enough that on the way home when we stopped at a new cupcakery that opened up to check it out I splurged and picked up and unfrosted special they had to go with my coffee.

Once we were home, I went to attempting to make a batch of cupcakes (I now have 3 dozen on order for this week) and couldn’t remember how to make the recipe that I’ve had memorized for well over a year. I had to stop, sit down and eat something with actual nutrition in it before continuing on with making the trial batch of cupcakes, stew and the soup we were cooking.

Come Sunday I was a bit more adamant about when we had to stop for food.

On a less blood-sugar-dipping note, this weekend I went and picked up a new bathroom scale. Our old one was sounding touchy (making all sorts of cracking sounds) and is several years old – like older than most of my grandchildren. The new fancy glass one reads more effectively and is easier to see. During my weigh in for the week it revealed that even though I was upping the amount of food I ate (even though it was home made meals) I lost weight. As of this morning I am down 4 pounds. Now that is faster than the program is supposed to drop, but not like I dropped 10-15 pounds in a week or something. So not enough to be concerned, but more than enough to see results that are motivating me.

As for the cooking and baking, Zombie Cakes did make its first debut at the September event for Iron Cupcake Madison. The theme was Late Summer Fruit and we arrived with a chocolate cherry stout cupcake (after a trip up to Door County for a ridiculous sized tub of cherries) with a cherry rum cream cheese frosting. The display was decorated to look like a haunted cherry grove in Door County, complete with a haunted lighthouse to hold the cupcakes. We didn’t win the taste category (although I counted any taste vote taken from a trained pastry chef a win), but we did take best display. And when I say we, I mean my wife. She’s the presentation person in the relationship.

This has lead to where we are today. Doing more cooking around the house. Baking more options with our baked goods to have more unique things to try. It has also led to two orders for cupcakes making for 3 dozen this week. More difficult than just that we’re talking three dozen “surprise me” cupcakes. That’s when you ask what they’d like for flavors and they say “surprise me.” I considered making my Ryzkahl cupcakes as they’re chocolate base and I just restocked my ancho chile powder, but we’ll see. One dozen is for a cardiologists rehab group – I’d hate to cause “an event.”

And just for the humor factor, when people at Iron Cupcake Madison asked why we were Zombie Cakes, I simply told them, “Because our cupcakes eat other cupcakes.”

I also rebooted my Sunday night gaming group. We had been off for long enough that I didn’t think we could keep going with the game as it was. Also one of the members was stepping out due to real life taking up more and more time. Tonight’s session was all role playing to flesh out the characters. Player’s actions in the game would determine their class, skills and abilities. Overall I think it went well – we’ll see what they all thought once I do a D&D specific post on it.

One of the players did text me before the game saying he was excited to be back into gaming on Sundays as he was jonesing for cupcakes. I know, right? Not “hey, I appreciate your work running the game” or “hey, you’re an awesome storyteller and DM and I can’t wait to start in” – just that he had a hankering for cupcakes. I damned near told them all I didn’t have any.

Let’s end today with some weekend stats…

  • First Meal Prepped – double batch (14 cups) of pasta fagouli (203 calories per cup)
  • Second Meal Prepped – beef stew with tomatos, onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes (17 cups at 282 calories per cup
  • Breads Baked – butter milk cornbread muffins (at 165 calories per)
  • Cupcake Test – cranberry, apple and walnut cupcakes with white chocolate cream cheese frosting (calories not calculated yet)
  • Reading – Sins of the Demon by Diana Rowland
  • Listening (iPod) – podcasts
  • Writing – this blog (so far)

Change Write Now Stats

  • Water – on track for the weekend
  • Food – Kept under my calories for the day and only 1 “event” this weekend
  • Exercise – topped out higher than the 20 minutes a day goal
  • Writing – Sunday wasn’t kind to me (I’m not counting writing for the game)
  • Habits – only the Sunday lapse on the good habit, revising my bad habit for tomorrow
  • Checking In – every day so far