Textured Vegetable Protein? No, thanks.

Question: When you think of “vegetable” what images come to mind? Personally, I picture carrots, onions, celery, leafy greens, tomatoes on the vine- that sort of thing. When manufacturers name something veggie or vegetable derived, they know this is the image we conjure up and market their products accordingly. Marketing is all about creating the right image.  Anything marked vegetable is healthy, right? One would think…

Well now, imagine my surprise upon learning that vegetable oil, for example, wasn’t made from the typical garden produce as the picture on the bottle hinted. Vegetable oil is soybean oil.

Yeah, um… I don’t see any pictures of soybeans on those bottles.

Mazola Vegetable Oil

So, considering what we know about vegetable oil I should have suspected the true origin of textured vegetable protein and steered clear, but I didn’t. And we ate it. This matters to me because, a few years ago, a wise healthcare provider suggested that I try cutting soy out of my diet to see if it would help control my raging hormones, since soy effects estrogen levels. It was in taking a closer look at my diet that I realized just how much of that particular vegetable we’d been consuming. The realization briefly made me want to become a soybean farmer because that stuff is in just about everything.

So, soy. I’ve avoid it for the past 3 years and am happier & healthier for it. Most noticeably, my acne has disappeared and stayed away, menstrual cycle became regular, mood swings and depression no longer have me in a stranglehold, and major pit odor is a thing of the past. I love being a girl! Which brings me to my recent use of textured vegetable protein and subsequent elimination of that item from the pantry.  Forever.

Textured-Vegetable-Protein

I was SO exited to find TVP in the bulk foods section of my grocery store and use it to stretch our ground beef.  I re-hydrated the freeze dried granules with hot water or broth and some tomato sauce along with whatever seasonings I liked for each particular dish. After soaking for a few minutes I’d cook it right in the pan with raw meat. The result was a seemless addition that even my husband couldn’t detect which tripled the amount of beef I had cooked. That’s right, instead of one meal from a pound of hamburger we got 3! I loved this stuff.

After two weeks of using it though, I was experiencing some unpleasant things like the return of acne and serious mood swings as well as upset stomach that just wouldn’t go away. So, I finally got around to looking into just what textured vegetable protein is… and was extremely disappointed. According to Bob’s Red Mill, one of the producers of this product,

“Textured Vegetable Protein is made from defatted soy flour that has been cooked under pressure and then dried.”

TVP

Nothing against Bob, I love his products, but that doesn’t sound good. Think about how much that (GMO?) soybean has  to go through to become this little protein packed nugget and the term “highly processed” comes to mind. I should have researched before trying something like this however, part of me just didn’t want to hear anything bad about my new favorite pantry staple. Oh, the shame- I’m guilty of willful ignorance to save a buck!

I haven’t used TVP in a week now and am seeing my unpleasant symptoms steadily decline. I usually use rice to stretch my beef and will continue to use that though would like to also try wheat berries and quinoa as alternatives. What tricks do you use to add extra nutrition and/or stretch the food dollar? I would love to hear some of your creative ideas! Thanks for reading 🙂

 

Cut Yourself Some Slack: Fast Food in the Meal Plan

Frozen Food Aisle

We all know it’s true: a good place to trim the budget is to eliminate eating out but I’m here to testify that being Susie Homemaker is easier said than done. If you find yourself making unplanned trips through the drive-thru each week because making dinner is inconvenient, you’re not alone. A lot of us are trying to find ways to save money and cut out unnecessary spending but there are plenty of reasons why we may find ourselves in line at the nearest fast food place on a weeknight. If you work outside the home it can be tough to find the time each day to fit it all in. Or maybe meal planning isn’t your strong suit then you probably don’t have the necessary ingredients on hand to prepare the meal you’d like to. Feel free to leave your own reason in the comments. Sister Solidarity!

I confess: years ago, when faced with the task of feeding a family, I was often out of inspiration and frustrated by mealtime so we ate at the golden arches at least twice a week. Each day I’d stand at the open fridge trying to come up with dinner on the fly and usually found myself making an unplanned trip the store to pick up extra ingredients in order to make dinner happen. What a hassle! Before I figured out how to plan ahead, shopping would consist of wandering up and down every aisle of the grocery store and throwing anything that inspired me into my cart, followed by going home, putting it all away and forgetting about most of what I’d just purchased.

In recent years I’ve learned that pre-planning our dinners each week gives me a more concrete shopping list to follow and allows me to be better prepared when it’s time to get cooking. I like having a dry erase board on the fridge to list the weekly dinners as a reminder to myself of what I had planned when I went shopping. I also plan at least one fast food night into our week in order to give myself a break. I call this approach “fast food on purpose” because it’s the unplanned dining out that kills the budget.

Fast food on purpose is easy stuff that requires little or no mixing and prep. If you already have such a meal in your pantry or freezer it’s much easier to avoid spending a Wednesday night at the local burger joint. If you like to do make-ahead meals to keep in the freezer then you’ve already got a stash of fast food ready to go. I personally don’t do many make-ahead meals so I like to take a little help from the freezer section of my grocery store. Here is a list of dinner ideas that can be prepared with pre-packaged items and save you from the drive-thru:


  • Entrees:

Chicken Burgers

  Family Pack Chicken Patties

Chimichangas

chimisenchilada sauceshredded_mexican-four-cheese

Fish & Chips

fish stickssteak friescole slaw

Fried Chicken

friedn chicken

Pizza

pizza

Chicken Parmesan with Pasta

ChickenParmagianaBarilla_Spaghetti

Chicken Nuggets

Crispy Chicken Strips

Chili Dogs

hot dog chili

Corn Dogs

corn dogs

Biscuits & Gravy

biscuitssausage gravy


  • Sides: 

Salad kits

caesar saladSouthwest salad

Pre-cut veggies & ranch dressing

veggie tray

frozen onion rings

onion rings

frozen french fries

ore_ida_fries

Macaroni & cheese

mac and cheese

Steamed microwavable veggies

mixed veg

Garlic Bread  

Instant Mashed Potatoes

Instant or microwave rice


This list is just a small sample of some of the options available in your local frozen foods section.  You can also find stir fry and casseroles, even breakfasts, all ready to cook. Planning ahead is the name of the game and even if you don’t have time to cook there are options available to put a good dinner on the table. And even if occasional pre-packaged food isn’t for you, there are options. You can try buying organic frozen foods of doing homemade freezer meals as an alternative. I personally consider this approach the lesser evil when compared with going out for a 99¢ heart attack in a sack. One thing that has helped me reach the goal of eating out less is to avoid pressure to prepare the perfect meal because for me, that’s just asking for trouble. I strive for home cooked and we do alright. 🙂 Happy meal planning!

The Secret to Easy Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Fact of life: Feeding children is like being a short-order cook in a busy diner. There are orders and special requests coming at you fast and if you’re not prepared, the whole operation can come apart at the seams. Those of us in the kitchen trenches are continually honing our skill set to better manage day-to-day life and meet everyone’s needs in the most efficient and effective way we can. We gather recipes and tips from fellow kitchen warriors and are always searching for ways to improve our craft.

I’ve personally searched for and tried more mac & cheese recipes than I can say including a very tasty baked version that required a good amount of prep and $20 worth of ingredients. It’s delicious and a great one to have for special occasions but perhaps not a realistic choice for my 2 year old at lunchtime. So stove top macaroni is my go-to for a quick, pleasing meal for the kiddos. With efficiency in mind, I always have the ingredients on hand to throw together a batch of mac & cheese, either for quick hearty kid lunch or an easy weeknight dinner. There are A LOT of recipes out there alleging to be the best version and I make no claim to that here. however, the recipe I’ll share- well method really- is one that every home cook should have in their arsenal. It doesn’t involve evaporated milk, mustard powder, or anything fussy. Starting with this method you’ll have your own perfect mac and cheese that will have other Mom’s asking how you do it. Play around and make this your own “Best Mac & Cheese” recipe.

Easy Stovetop Mac

Ingredients

  • 2 C or 8 oz. of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 C milk
  • 2 T cornstarch
  • 2 C dried Macaroni or shells, prepared
  • Seasoning of choice *I use all-purpose seasoning salt and a dash of onion powder, you may want to add some cayenne or a little smoked paprika. Experiment to find the flavors that you like.

Note: You can use any cheese or combination of cheeses you like here, as long as it melts. In order to have a flavorful sauce you’ll want to choose cheese that has a strong flavor which is why I use sharp. It’s okay to use mild or whatever you have on hand though you may need to season your final product a little more to keep it from being bland. No need to run to the store, show-off your homemaker chops by making do with what you have.

cheese sauce

Prepare the pasta according to package directions. My kids like really soft macaroni so I add 2-3 minutes to the cooking time. For the cheese sauce, start by heating the milk. Get it nice and hot but don’t boil it. You can either do this in the microwave or on the stove top. While the milk is heating place your shredded cheese in a bowl and toss it with the corn starch to coat, you could also do this in a baggie. Once the cheese is coated, stir into the hot milk until smooth. Taste and season your sauce to your preference and then stir in the pasta and serve. Make this a dinner by doubling amounts and adding cooked meat, or boiling sliced hot dogs in with the pasta. This would be perfect for Meatless Monday. Add a side of veg for good measure.

Saving Money on Diapers: Name Brand vs. Generic

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There’s a significant price difference between brand name and generic disposable diapers. I’ve done a price comparison of 5 national diaper brands to illustrate the savings. All prices are Wal-Mart’s and all counts are for a size 6, which our son currently wears.

I came up with the yearly total based on the number of diapers we use a week times 52 weeks rounded to the nearest hundred: 2400. I divided that number by the count per box then multiplied the price of each box by 52 to get the annual estimated totals. These parameters give us an example of the considerable price differences among brands. Save money, buy generic.


Large Package

  • Huggies Snug & Dry: 100 ct., $34.97 (34¢/diaper) =$827 
  • Parent’s Choice: 92 ct., $19.77 (21¢/diaper) = $514
  • Up + Up: 120 ct., $28.99 (24¢/diaper) =$579
  • Pampers Baby Dry: 128 ct., $45.60 (36¢/diaper) = $866
  • Luvs: 112 ct., $31 (28¢/diaper)= $682

Medium Package

  • Huggies Snug & Dry: 64 ct., $20.97 (33¢/diaper) =$796
  • Parent’s Choice: 60 ct., $13.97 (23¢/diaper) = $558
  • Up + Up: 60 ct., $16.99 (28¢/diaper) =$679
  • Pampers Baby Dry: 64 ct., $24.94 (39¢/diaper) = $947
  • Luvs: 54 ct., $15.97 (30¢/diaper)= $718

Small Package

  • Huggies Snug & Dry: 23 ct., $8.97 (39¢/diaper) =$941
  • Parent’s Choice: 23 ct., $5.97 (26¢/diaper) = $626
  • Up + Up: 23 ct., $6.99 (30¢/diaper) =$733
  • Pampers Baby Dry: 21 ct., $8.97 (43¢/diaper) = $1,031
  • Luvs: 21 ct., $6.97 (33¢/diaper)$801

I think that a lot of people don’t consider the cheaper brands of diapers because they assume that the quality must be sub-par. Truth be told, some store brands are junk. For example, I can vouch for the fact that the Parent’s Choice brand (sold at WalMart) used to be total garbage several years ago when we were diapering our first baby. However, since then they’ve redesigned and are now comparable to Huggies in fit and absorbency much like the Target Up + Up brand. Parent’s choice is the brand we use because it happens to fit our son well, Target’s didn’t. Luvs is way too perfumey so I skip those as well. Every brand has a different fit so I say,  give a few generics a tryout to find a good fit for your baby and your wallet. Your homemaker paycheck could get a raise of several hundred bucks a year!

Copycat Rice-a-roni

Whenever I’ve bought a box of Rice-a-roni or Hamburger Helper and cooked it up for dinner my family is like, “Oh, man this is so good! You should make this all the time! I love this stuff!” Prepackaged, sodium-filled, preservative-ridden food is their favorite. I can’t blame them, it is delicious. My Mom conscience, however, won’t allow me to feed them crap on a regular basis so I try to make the things they like from scratch instead. I can make more for less and it will have fewer ingredients which quiets my inner critic that nags me to feed them all natural, BPA free, non-GMO, sustainable organic, whole foods at every meal. I strive for not fast-food and usually succeed, so pipe down inner critic.

Tonight I’m making my homemade version of Beef Rice-a-roni but I also do this recipe with chicken which is the same method but substituting chicken breast and chicken broth for the beef. Everything else is the same.


IMG_1928

Homemade Hamburger Rice

Serves 6-8 plus leftovers. We love leftovers.

  • 1-2 lbs. ground beef, browned & drained
  • 5 1/4 -1/2 C beef broth (I mix up some bouillon)
  • 4 T butter, margarine or oil
  • 3 Cups white rice
  • 1 pkg vermicelli

    Toasting the rice & pasta

Brown  & drain your beef then set aside or, you can take a page from my book and pull your pre-cooked ground beef out of the fridge or freezer ready to go. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add uncooked rice and vermicelli and stir frequently to toast until you can smell the roasty toasty buttery goodness and start to see pieces of rice & pasta turn golden. Add the beef and broth and stir to combine. Bring to a boil then cover and reduce heat to low. Let cook without opening or stirring for 20 minutes or until rice is tender. Serve.

Note: I use a 12″ deep-sided skillet with a lid for this recipe. If you don’t have one this recipe can be halved and made in a smaller skillet. The vermicelli I use can usually be found in the Hispanic foods section of the grocery store. 

Butter Wrappers, Cereal Bags & the Income of a Homemaker

use-it-upAs a homemaker, my “income” can be how much money I save by “making do”. I’m inspired by past generations of resourceful homemakers when it comes to making do. In WWII folks were encouraged to plant “victory” gardens and make do on rations to support the troops. We could learn a lot from those women who could feed and clothe a family with very little.

Look, I may not be cashing a pay check anymore but I’m also not spending anywhere near as much as I did back then. I can’t walk and chew bubblegum, that’s to say I kind of suck at multitasking anymore than necessary… so if I was working, we’d spend more money just buying the convenience items that allow many a busy Mom to take care of her family as well as bring home the bacon. Yes that was a major run-on sentence because I also suck at writing. We’d be spending more on gas, my wardrobe, makeup, my hair (gotta look good in the office) not to mention childcare, and still take care of the home. Working Moms are amazing.

So, spend less money. That’s the goal. In order for me to stay at home with the kids, I didn’t just quit working; we didn’t just lose an income, we had to change the way we live or else it wouldn’t work. And for a while there it damn near didn’t… There are a million & one things to buy when you’re shopping for a household, especially one with kids in it. Those supplies add up and become a huge chunk of the budget because there is just so much everyone needs. So, cutting costs is the goal.

I make money by saving money and one way to achieve that is to really get your money’s worth from the items you buy; squeezing every last drop out of things and being a total cheapskate. I admit though, this lifestyle isn’t for everyone and if you don’t do as I do, that’s super! High-five! You’re doing everything you can to make a home for your family and you’re rocking it your own way. Get it girl. This is just my way. You’re all awesome. I mean it.

IMG_1897

In earlier posts I mentioned cutting costs by not buying cleanerspaper towels & plastic baggies. That is my mindset- what can we do without?  How can we make do? Do we really need to buy that or can we use something we already have to get the same result? In that vein, do you remember Home Ec. class? Do they still have that? I took Home Economics in the 9th grade and still remember many of the lessons from that class because I actually use those lessons in real life. One trick our teacher taught us was to use your butter wrappers to grease baking pans or griddles and I practice that to this day. I keep butter & margarine wrappers in a plastic container in the freezer to use as needed. Keep in mind that butter is a perishable and will go bad on you. So I store the wrappers in the freezer and then when I need to rub down a pan the heat of my hand thaws it immediately. Nifty, huh? After reusing a wrapper once, I finally do throw it away.

Another thing I save is the plastic bag that cereal comes in. Someone once told me they make great piping bags for frosting & stuff but that turned out to be a bust- literally. The seams on the side of the cereal bag won’t hold up to the pressure of piping which, if you think about it, makes sense. Those seams are designed to open easily so you can get the cereal out.

IMG_1920IMG_1919

So, no, to piping bags but YES to freezer bags! When I open a bag of frozen vegetables and only use part of it, a handy cereal bag is a great way to store what’s left without having frozen corn rolling all over the inside of your freezer. I seal it with a twist tie or just fold it over. Also, I use freezer bags- excuse me, cereal bags- to wrap baked goods like banana bread, meatballs, what-have-you, and freeze. If you’re a little paranoid about freezer burn (I am) then wrap the food in plastic wrap, aluminum foil  or both, first. How much money did you save this week? Well what if I told you that’s an income? Nice, huh?

Stretching the Food Dollar: Ground Beef

IMG_1530

Feeding our party of 5 within a budget means making the most of every food dollar. One of the things that helps achieve this goal is shopping with a strategy. As I’ve said before, I shop the weekly store ads for the best prices on meat and make a meal plan accordingly. If beef isn’t a good deal then we’ll eat chicken, turkey or pork; if it is, then I try to buy extra for the freezer. The most I’ve purchased & processed at one time is 10 pounds.

When I do bring home beef I need to extend it into as many meals as possible. Make-ahead meatballs are an awesome and easy way to do that because of the “fillers” we add and can be used in many different ways. I also brown up any we’ll need that week and store in airtight containers in the fridge. Cooking ahead stops the meat from aging in the fridge and cuts out a step for later to help get dinner made quicker. Here are my recipes & methods for processing ground beef to best advantage:


IMG_1537Depending on how much meat you’re processing, adjust ingredient amounts to suit. Personally, I rarely measure and make this recipe using anywhere from 2-5 lbs. of beef at a time. So amounts can be approximate. The seasonings are purely for taste and can be substituted with others. I’ve used leftover ramen flavor packets, onion soup mix, steak seasoning, anything I have on hand. If you don’t have one of the items listed or are a little short, make due, it’ll be fine. Go ahead, be flexible and your meatballs will turn-out whether or not you have the perfect measurements.

The deciding factor to making good meatballs is not so much in ingredients as in the size of your balls and how you cook them. I’ve found that if the balls are too small they’ll dry out no matter what and too big can give you an under-cooked surprise. Not cool. I get a perfectly moist & cooked meatball by measuring each with my trusty #60 disher scoop. Each of my meatballs is two scoops, which is about 2 tablespoons.  Meal ideas for meatballs include: with gravy & mushrooms, Swedish, with bbq sauce, with pineapple chunks & teriyaki sauce, sub sandwiches, cut in half to use as sliders, as a party snack or appetizer,  in a soup, with  marinara and mozzarella, sweet & Sour, in a Stroganoff or almost any meal that calls for ground beef. Put any of these over pasta or rice; there are just so many options!

Make-Ahead Meatballs

IMG_1535

  • 2 lbs. Ground Beef
  • I C precooked rice (I prefer white)
  • 2 t salt
  • 1 t pepper
  • 1/2 T onion powder
  • 2 t granulated garlic
  • 1 t Old Bay seasoning
  • 1/3 C ketchup
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 T Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 t vinegar
  • (optional) 1 T Italian seasoning

Preheat your oven to 350º and line a lipped baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and gently mix with hands just until combined taking care not to overwork the meat as that can make it tough. Portion out meatballs onto a baking sheet then form each on into a ball by hand. Bake for about 20 minutes until internal temperature reaches 160º. To freeze, cool to room temp then place in your freezer on a baking sheet for 30 -45 minutes before transferring to a freezer bag (be sure to remove as much air as possible before sealing to avoid excess frost and freezer burn). This method individually freezes each one and ensures they won’t turn into a smashed, stuck-together blob. Freeze for up to 4 months. To use after freezing, Place frozen meatballs onto a baking sheet, pie plate, etc., and place into a cold oven. Turn oven to 350º and bake for about 25-35 minutes until internal temperature has reached 165º.


I keep cooked rice in the fridge all the time ready to heat up for a quick lunch or add to a batch of ground beef. Handy thing to have on hand! If you cook your rice in beef broth it will add flavor to your meat mixtures. I like using carrot as a filler because it’s color doesn’t stand out too noticeably in the finished product and it adds an extra dose of roughage and vitamins to our diet. You can use other vegetables in addition or instead.  Adjust the onion as you like, my husband doesn’t like onion so I use very little here and mince it fine. Add up to a cup if you like! Beans are another great  filler though not as inconspicuous. Adding fillers ensures there is no loss of volume during cooking. For example, I just browned a 2.06 lb. package of meat and after this process the meat weighed in at 2.19 pounds. 

Make Ahead Browned Ground Beef

IMG_1540

  • 2 lbs. Ground Beef
  • 1 finely shredded carrot
  • 1/2 C minced onion
  • 1 T minced garlic
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t pepper
  • 1 C cooked rice (I prefer white)

Spray a skillet with cooking spray or very lightly drizzle with oil then saute garlic & onion over medium heat for 2-3 minutes then add beef & carrot and brown. When done browning, drain fat then stir in rice, salt & pepper. Transfer to air-tight storage containers, cool slightly and store in the fridge for up to 3-4 days or freeze for up to 4 months.  You can reheat directly from freezer without thawing, especially if you froze it flat. If you froze in a container thaw ground beef for up to 24 hours in the fridge. Food safety guidelines advise that frozen foods be reheated to 165º.


Tips

Meal planning: Did you know that we really don’t need to eat meat at every meal every day? Planning  just one meatless dinner a week saves money and is a healthy habit to get into.  If you’d like to learn more on that topic, check out the website Meatless Monday for menu ideas.

Cooking with broth: I like to cook rice in broth to add flavor as a filler and my broth of choice is bouillon. I like bouillon cubes and powder because it keeps in the pantry for a long time and is a lot cheaper than stock or broth.

Browning large quantities of ground beef: One of my favorite food bloggers, Christy Jordan, has an awesome tutorial on her site for streamlining the process of handling large amounts of ground beef (like 5 lbs or more). Her method is so much faster than browning in batches! You can see that method on her site here.food scale

Kitchen tools: When buying meat in large amounts it’s so nice to be able to weigh out equal amounts to freeze. I have a digital scale that came from Costco for about $20 and use it for a lot of different things.

Another tool I wouldn’t want to be without is my disher scoop. I use it for cookie dough and meatballs and it rocks. They come in many sizes and greatly vary in price from El Cheap-o to Fancy-Schmancey. I have a cheaper model. Dishers can be found at most department stores but certainly at a restaurant or kitchen supply. 800px-Kitchen-Scooper-Small

Ditch the Store-bought Dressings!

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I try to avoid soy which makes buying salad dressing off the shelf difficult. Also, I like fresh and am totally picky when it comes to condiments. Homemade tastes so much better than store bought, am I right? Here are 3 of my family’s favorite salad dressings that are simple to make as well as delicious. Make them your own by tweaking the recipe to suit your tastes. Diced, pickled jalapeno would be a yummy addition to the thousand island for example. Mix it up!


French Dressing

  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 1 1/2 C canola oil
  • 1/4 C water
  • 1/2 C white wine vinegar
  • 2 t montreal steak seasoning
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 2 T mayonaise
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t pepper
  • 1 t prepared mustard

Combine all ingredients in a blender and mix until creamy. Pour into a quart mason jar and store in your refrigerator. Shake before using and use within 5-7 days.


Thousand Island Dressing

  • 1 C mayonaise
  • 1/2 C ketchup
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 t onion powder
  • 1/2 t garlic powder
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1-2 T water to thin (depending on the consistency you like)
  • (optional) 1-2 T sweet pickle relish
  • (optional) 1 t hot sauce

Stir ingredients together in a small serving bowl. Can be used as a dip or dressing. Refrigerate any leftovers and use within 7-10 days.


Blue Cheese Dressing

  • 1 C sour cream
  • 1/2 C mayo
  • 2 t white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 t minced garlic
  • 1/8 t salt
  • 1/2 t black pepper
  • 1 4 oz. container of crumbled blue cheese or gorgonzola
  • (optional) milk to thin

Whisk ingredients together in a bowl. This will be thick and rich but you can thin it out if you want it to be easier to pour. This is wonderful as a dip with vegetables or hot wings. Heck, I like it with potato chips! Refrigerate any leftovers and use within 5 days.

 

 

Children’s Birthday Parties for Less

birthday cakes Collage

I feel like a birthday party pro. That may be because after 8 years and 3 kids I’ve taped up a lot of streamers and iced a lot of cakes. Our very first kids birthday party was over the top though. I spent about $200, and invited like 50 people. I was a new Mommy celebrating my 1st born’s 1st birthday- I couldn’t help myself. A few parties later I’ve pared down the cost and streamlined the process to reduce stress. A few pointers:


Decorations: You can have a beautiful party without dropping serious cheddar at the party store. I use the classic combination of balloons & streamers and they always look great. You can get whatever colors you need to complement your child’s theme for under $10. Also, don’t bother buying one of those expensive helium tanks to blow up your balloons! You can make them “float” by blowing them up with plain old lung power and hanging the strings from the ceiling, or taping them on the wall to compliment your streamers. I always hang the streamers and balloons at least a couple days before to get the decorations off my to-do list. Save as little for yourself to do the day of as possible.

If there is a specific character or theme you’re trying to accomplish, a couple of well placed items from your local department store’s party section can help. For example, my daughter had a Monster High themed party so I purchased a table cover and wall hanging for about $9 to compliment the streamers and balloons I picked up for $5. After the party, I put her name banner (made in MS Word & printed at home) and the giant poster in her bedroom IMG_0328(minus the happy birthday portion). She now has a M.H. themedIMG_0330 decor every day for pretty darn cheap.


Food: Planning ahead goes for food to. Do as much food prep in advance as you can. Less to do the day of the party means less stress and more fun. Feeding a crowd can be pricey and complicated. I like to make simple, inexpensive yet yummy food in large quantities. One idea I’ve used is a hot dog bar. You can cook your dogs (and keep them warm) in the crock pot. I use beef bouillon cubes in the water to give the tube steaks extra flavor. A great idea, found on one of my favorite food blogger, Stephanie O’Dea’s, website is to stand the hot dogs on end to get more into the slow cooker. You can see that post here.


Treat bags for the kids: I have often made homemade goodies like Chex coated in white chocolate or chocolate dipped pretzels, cookies, etc. to fill treat bags. The kids always enjoy it and the adults do too. There have also been parties where I skipped treat bags altogether because they aren’t strictly necessary.


Invitations: Our local Dollar Tree has invitations and thank you cards. They have decorations too. That’s my sweet spot. You could always go free and text, email, or Facebook invite people but I love invites in the mail. It just says party to me.


Cake: When ordered from a store bakery, cakes can be a good chunk of your party budget. $30 for sponge cake & colored Crisco? No, thank you. I like to make my kids’ cakes as often as possible. Sometimes we can’t afford a big gift but I can always fire up the mixer and bake up a box of Duncan Hines. The kids love choosing what kind of cake they want made and come up with ideas throughout the year in anticipation of their next birthday. There have been times when I’ve bought a cake off the rack at Costco to avoid becoming overwhelmed by party prep. Whatever it takes to get it done.


Party space: We have a large family. My husband is one of 5 and they all have kids. So our kids have 13 first cousins and 1 more on the way. Add that to friends and my side of the family… we need a big space. Since two of our kids  have winter birthdays, outdoor parties won’t work. We lived in a single-wide mobile home for 2 years and ended up having 3 parties at bounce house places just to accommodate everyone. $250 a pop. Ouch. Now, we live in a house large enough to have everyone over but it’s still a squeeze. So I’ve done away with the big party and we do two small parties for each kid. One with my family and one with just one or two of my husband’s sibs and their kids, as well as a special homemade dinner and cake on their actual birthday. It’s a week long birthday and the kids love it. I leave the decor up all week too. It’s pretty fun!


So these are the things I think of when planning a party. Bottom line. Try not to go overboard. Your blood pressure and your wallet will thank you.

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My baby boy & I at our 3rd, and last, first birthday.