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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Can you go TOO cheap?

As a poor student, I once decided to cook everything from scratch.  My reasoning was that I enjoyed cooking (well, baking), and it would save me money, plus I would eat healthier.  I also decided to buy local, in-season, or cheap food.  As a result, I bought cabbage, turnip, dried beans, etc.  You can already see the disaster.  My beans weren’t fully cooked (it takes hours to cook them!), and I never liked cabbage or turnip.  So the result was that I ate out almost every night that week.
Later, a few weeks older and definitely wiser, I bought food I enjoy: eggs, salsa, carrots, lettuce and avocados, tomatoes.  I made tomato sandwiches to take with me to avoid buying lunch, made a great salad to eat with an omelet spiced up with salsa.  Eventually, I learned to make my own salsa (tastes better than stored-bought, but not cheaper since I couldn’t buy tomatoes at a discount price), bought a bread-maker on sale to make my own bread (I still won’t make it completely by hand), and I can make killer salads and my own salad-dressings.  I learned that going too cheap can result in a larger expense to correct the mistake.
One of my friends once bought very cheap bed sheets; after a few washes, they were almost falling apart.  Same for socks, too cheap means holes for your toes.
However, there are some items that you CAN go cheap for, without much or any negative effects:
- Food close to the ‘best before’ date – that is what that date means: BEST before – not unsafe or unhealthy to eat after! As well, you can often freeze the food and eat it later.
- Trendy clothes – especially if it’s an item you know you won’t wear for long
- Formal wear, if you are buying for one event – such as a formal dress/gown
- An item on sale because it’s being discontinued; if it doesn’t work, the warranty should still be valid and the company will replace it with one of equivalent value.
- Decorative items; if their sole purpose is to look good and they won’t be handled much, they should last even if cheap.
What NOT to buy because it’s cheap?
- Anything you do not want or do not need: if you hate pink, do not buy a pink shirt because it’s cheap.
- Anything where you suspect the low price reflects the low quality
- Anything sold ‘as is’ if you are not prepared to fix whatever doesn’t work.
So, is it possible to go too cheap? Absolutely, especially if it will be costly to repair the mistake.  Be wise in your frugalness.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Batch Cooking

Batch cooking means just this: cooking in batches so you don’t have to cook as often because you have large quantities of food prepared.  This is typically a method used by larger families of at least a couple of kids – a parent makes 2 lasagnas at once and freezes one so there is one ready for next week.

However, batch cooking can cook for the single student too.  Say you would like to eat spaghetti; making an elaborate sauce for one serving does not make sense; you cook for 30 min and ‘inhale’ the result in 12 minutes! So you eat the sauce right out of the jar, letting the hot pasta heat up the sauce – yuk!  However, what if you spent 30 minutes making the sauce and had some for 5 extra meals? Now, that’s an interesting idea.

Depending how much you eat, a recipe for 4 or 6 may give you food for only 2-3 meals or for 5-7 meals.  It also depends if you like lots of sides to your meal: do you eat spaghetti with a salad and bread, or just a plate of spaghetti?

Pick something you eat often and you enjoy making: my example is spaghetti (sauce), but it could be something else, as long as it freezes well: Sheppard’s pie; chicken pot pie; quiche; chili; etc.  Instead of making only enough for 1 or 2 meals (or 1 meal with a bit of left over), double your recipe.  Yes, it may take and extra 10% time to cut more vegetables, but compared to making the entire recipe on a different night, it’s a very small amount of time.

Now you have two choices: either you cook the recipe as one (like chili) and save a few portions to freeze for later meals, or you divide the recipe in separate containers and cook separately (like for Sheppard’s pie). Either way, you end up with extra servings ready to freeze and eat on another day.

Now for the freezing part: you will need containers to freeze and a labeling system.  If you are sharing a freezer with others and they like to freeze food too (or keep some vodka in the freezer), you will need to minimize the space you use: square containers take up less space for the same amount of volume.  I like the disposable Ziploc ones (except I don’t dispose of them – I reuse them over and over).  Some people like to spray a light coat of Pam (an oil spray) to create a thin barrier between the food and the container so that the food does not stain the container (tomato sauce of any kind will do that); I don’t care about the stain myself.  Another space-saving method is to buy good quality freezer bag and to freeze the food in these – they can be packed almost flat in the freezer (do NOT try this with cheap sandwich bag – you can imagine the mess when they break).  If you have lots of space, empty 1 liter yogurt containers work very well!

A very important part of this system is labelling: if you don’t label your food, A. someone else may eat it if you share your freezer; B. you will not know what is in the container (chili looks a lot like spaghetti sauce once frozen); C. you may eat someone else’s weird concoction!  What I find works for me is masking tape (not the one from the dollar store though – the good quality stuff from a hardware store), about ¾ inch wide.  If you stick masking tape on a warm and dry plastic lid, it will stay on, even after you freeze the container.  However, do not try to label an already frozen container like this: the humidity on the container and the cold will prevent the glue of the masking tape from working properly.  On the piece of masking tape, I would write my name (if sharing the freezer), the name of the dish, the number of servings (in case I freeze in different quantities), and the date (so I don’t forget about a dish made 6 months ago).

In my kitchen batch cooking, I have found a huge number of dishes that freeze well, and a few that don’t.  For example, soups are great if frozen with the pasta a bit undercooked (you can remove the soup to be frozen from the pot before the soup is ready, and then continue cooking the portion you plan on eating now), but cream soups tend to have the milk separate during the freeze-thaw process (it doesn’t alter the taste, just the texture).  My favorite scone recipe does not freeze well baked, but the raw dough freezes will so I will make twice the recipe (I only thaw a half recipe at the time), form into four dough shapes and bake one and freeze three.  Most of my muffin recipes freeze very well so I will make a double batch (24 muffins), freeze 18 (I can eat 6 muffins in a week), and put a frozen muffin in my lunch bag every day after the first 6 are eaten for breakfast; the muffin thaws between breakfast and lunch and keeps the rest of my lunch cool.

You may wonder why I love batch cooking so much. It’s not the cooking as much as the lack of need to cook on other nights – it’s great to take out spaghetti sauce from the freezer, cook some pasta and TA-DA! Dinner is ready!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Housemate Agreement

Unless you are a very lucky student who is not sharing living space, most likely you have to put up with other people where you live.  One great way to make the process less painful for everyone is to come up with a good Housemate Agreement – this way, everyone is on the same page and agrees to the same ‘rules’.

Cleaning: obviously (or not – you may want to point this out!), each person should clean their own room and clean after themselves in the kitchen and bathroom after they use it.  However, there is lots of clean up to be done in common rooms, such as the entry way, the hall, the kitchen (just cleaning after cooking and eating is not enough), the bathroom, etc.  Make a list of what should be done weekly (including shoveling the snow and mowing the lawn if you are responsible for some outside areas) and divide it up.  A tip: if everyone chooses to be in charge of cleaning the room/are they are the most ‘picky’ about, the cleaning will be done very well.  For example, I’m picky about bathroom cleanliness; I don’t like touching the toilet seat if there are any hair around or on it.  I don’t like the soap muck around the sink.  Therefore, in a shared house, I’d be happier cleaning the bathroom, not for the act of cleaning it, but because I trust myself to do a job I can be happy with.  Make sure people are accountable for their cleaning: once a week should be a minimum (since many people are sharing these spaces) so a check list is not a bad idea – put a check mark after your chore when you are done.

Bills: it’s not a good idea for one person to have his/her name on all the bills and for others to give that person money each month to pay the bills.  Why? Because every time someone is short of money, the same person suffers.  Have each person handle one bill and have one person calculate who owes what to whom every month.  Or even better, find a place that charges rent inclusive of everything1

Noise: if you know the people who are sharing a house/apartment well, you probably know how much noise these people make.  Sometimes though, we know people a bit and have to make a quick decision about sharing a home.  Have an honest discussion about noise: would it be all right if everyone tried to be quiet (in case someone is trying to study or sleep) after 11pm and before 8am?

Food: decide together if you want to share some food (such as salt, pepper, flour for baking) or if should all foods should be individual.  It can be a little silly to have 6 salt shakers in the house; however, it can be frustrating to want an omelet and find no eggs left.  A bit of both is probably best.  Share what lasts a long time should be shared (you can share the cost).  And label what is yours or others won’t remember if they finished their chocolate chip cookies bag and they will eat yours.  A tip: buy plastic bins, label them with your name, and put your food in them in the fridge, freezer and pantry.  You can also keep some pantry-type food in your room if there are no issues with pests.

Car: if one of you has a car, find a way to get a ride to the grocery store without taking advantage of the person who owns the car.  Let’s say Bob has a car.  Yes, Bob would be paying for gas, maintenance of the car, insurance and such even if nobody else ‘bummed’ a ride to where Bob is going.  However, it’s not fair that everyone gets the convenience of the car but nobody except Bob pays for it.  Put a jar in the kitchen and put in $1 or 2 whenever Bob gives you a ride.  He’ll appreciate it and will be more likely to make a small detour to drop you off next time he goes out.  And make sure the responsibility of shoveling the driveway is not added on to Bob’s list: he should not have extra work to do when everybody gets rides.

Laundry: if you are lucky enough to have laundry facilities in your house or apartment, be considerate of others and only start your laundry if you can take it out promptly and dry it, so you can leave the appliances empty so others can use them.  It is frustrating to always have to take one housemate’s wet stuff out of the washing machine on a regular basis.  Make sure you empty the lint catcher (on all dryer, and some washer) so that the appliances run efficiently, saving you money; as well, you landlord may not have to replace an appliance if it was not used properly or if it was neglected.

Overall, be kind and put expectations forwards so that there are no misunderstandings between housemates.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Top Four Reasons Why You Should Hang Dry Your Clothes Outside

I like drying my clothes outside after washing them.  There is an old-fashion pleasure in hanging clothes outside.  Of course for the less romantic students who are short on time, I’d better make my choice better-justified.  So here are three reasons you should hang your clothes to dry outside:

  1. It’s economical; the clothes dryer is one of the most power-hungry appliances in your house.  Drying outside is free.  In winter, I hang-dry inside (it’s dry in most houses in winter; air-drying your clothes balances that a bit, and the clothes take less time than you’d think to dry indoors).
  2. It’s more efficacious way to dry:  clothing drying outside airs out more than in the machine and therefore it will smell better – less smoke, less perspiration, etc.
  3. It’s better for your clothes: clothes get damaged with high heat (from the washer and the dryer), from movement and friction (think of the washer and dryer) and from chemicals; if you can reduce the heat and the movement (from the dryer), your clothes will last longer.  Elastic and spandex are especially sensitive and should never be in the dryer – the elastic gets dried out and starts breaking.
  4. It’s better for your health; spending a few minutes outside hanging your clothes is almost a meditation exercise; you cannot go too fast (or you’ll drop everything), the action does not make much noise, and it is outside.

Now that you are totally convinced that you want to hang your clothes to dry, you may be concerned about the lack of space you have; here are a few tips on HOW to do it:

  • If you live in a house, ask your landlord for a clothes dryer tree – they run about $200 but last for years – and it will make his/her house easier to rent later.  The trees are sturdy and can easily take two loads of clothing to dry.
  • If you cannot get the house owner to pay for it, consider sharing the cost between housemates
  • Another, much cheaper alternative is a small metal dryer – these also fit on a balcony if you do not have a yard; as well, they can be taken indoors in bad weather.
  • Hang a rope – make sure it’s high enough that you won’t decapitate anyone walking by, or make it removable at one end – you only have it strung when you are using it.
  • If you only have a balcony, go with the small metal dryer – for indoor and outdoor.
  • The most obvious place for a hanging dryer is in your laundry room if you have one and it is large enough.  Remember though, that the top of the dryer is a great space to put a drying rack.
  • Inside your home, in winter (unless you are in sunny Victoria or Vancouver!), you need to find space to set up your dryer.  If you do a load of wash late at night, you can hang your clothes inside your bedroom early in the morning, before leaving for classes.  By the time you get back home, they will most likely be dry. 
  • After everyone’s had their shower, announce that you need to use the tub to hang your clothes – unless you have roommates who shower continuously, this should not inconvenience anyone – set the dryer in the tub.
  • Hang some towel bars on the ceiling for an easy way to dry shirts: hang the shirts on plastic hangers (in case you get rust from the metal ones) and hang the hangers from the towel bars for maximum air flow.  You can do this in your bedroom or in the bathroom (or the laundry room). 
  • Towels can often be dried directly on the towel bar they usually hang from – we dry our tea towels (that we use to dry our dishes) in the kitchen on towel bars.
  • Most horizontal banisters are great hanging spots for damp clothes.  In summer, you can use the one on the balcony.
  • Sheets are hard to dry because they are so large; if you have a spare set of sheets (so you can change your bedding without washing your sheets right away), wash EITHER the top sheet or the fitted one in a load (not both) so you only have to dry one at the time.  With a large banister you can hang-dry your sheet indoors; otherwise, a few hooks high on your walls/ceiling should let you hang the drying sheet ‘from the ceiling’ for a day – that should be all it takes to dry (you can do it at night when you sleep as long as it’s high enough – and you’ll sleep better in a slightly less dry room in winter).
  • If you find your undies a bit stiff after slow air drying, put them (once dry) in the electric dryer for a few minutes – they just need the agitation to regain their softness.  Stiff towels dry your skin better, and exfoliate at the same time, so enjoy!

Yes, hanging clothes is a bit more work, BUT… it’s SO MUCH better!