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Grocery Savings

Homemade Pumpkin Puree & Toasted Seeds

I imagine this sounds like a wacky undertaking to some. There is no doubt that canned pumpkin is easier and probably more consistent in quality, but hubby and I are working to cut down using canned products. One concern is BPA, but moreover, cans are heavy and require more energy in shipping, plus the production of the can and then recycling of it also use energy. In contrast, our local pumpkin had a quick ride from farm to farmer’s market to our home and everything that we won’t eat (pumpkin skin, stem, and guts) was composted.

Also, we love to do things on the cheap. And this was cheap, for sure. Our $5 pumpkin gave us the 13 cups of puree, plus lots of pumpkin seeds that I toasted for snacks.

Here are the instructions that I used for roasting the pumpkin:

Modifications: I did not use a pie pumpkin; I used a large jack-o-lantern one. Some people swear by not using those because they are less sweet and more stringy, but that is what they had at the farmers’ market and several friends told me they had had success with them. Happily, my pumpkin wasn’t stringy at all.

I cut the pumpkin in half with an electric knife. To scrape the inside, we have this little, cheapy pumpkin scraper from an old carving kit that works wonderfully. That part was less trouble than I anticpated. The longest part was getting the cooked pumpkin into the food processor. It wasn’t hard as much as time-consuming. I felt like I was wasting too much by spooning it, so I used a filet knife to take off the skin.

While the pumpkin was roasting on the lower rack, I baked the pumpkin seeds on the top rack according to this recipe (which calls for the same temperature as the roasting pumpkin):

But, if you’d like a little more variety with your seeds, I like all of the alternatives in this recipe:

If you haven’t had pumpkin seeds before, they taste similar to a sunflower seed but have a very light pumpkin flavor to them. You can shell them and just eat the flat seed inside or eat them with the shell. Personally, I prefer to eat them in the shell because it is easier.

So what to do with 13 cups of pumpkin puree? I’ve been taking suggestions and here’s what I’ve got: pancakes from the Deceptively Delicious cookbook, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, my stepmom’s family recipe pumpkin bread, pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, pumpkin soufflé, Rachel Ray’s gingerbread waffles, slow cooker pumpkin custard, pumpkin soup, and of course, pumpkin pie

Cost: $5 for the pumpkin
Time spent: 3 hours: 90 minutes of roasting, 90 minutes of labor: gutting the pumpkin, removing seeds for toasting, then shelling the cooked pumpkin, pureeing, and portioning*

*I portioned the pumpkin into a variety of sizes: ½ cup, 1 cup, 2 cups, and 3 cups and popped it into the freezer.

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Paper Towel Alternative

Eight months ago we decided to phase out paper towels in our house and switch to one-use-and-wash cloth towels. To maximize the eco-friendliness of this move, we wanted to repurpose something that we already had rather than go and buy a new cloths from the store. Enter my husband’s old, holey T-shirts.

I started by cutting down each side seam, then cutting out the sleeves. With the shirt in more manageable chunks I was able to start cutting it into useable pieces. I decided that I wanted each cloth to be the size of 1/2 paper towel. This size is big enough for most clean-up jobs, but small enough that we aren’t tempted to reuse them (and thus spread harbored bacteria).

Storing the cloths in discreet way was important to me. I didn’t think a big wad of rags, even clean ones with a noble purpose, would encourage my husband to stick with it. So, I decided to use a small canister. While it is easy enough to just lob the cloths in there, I like a more streamlined approach. I stack all of the cloths, then invert the pile and push it in the canister so that just one cloth is visible (like how a box of tissues is packaged). That way I can grab one cloth without taking seven others out.

Once a cloth is used, it goes in an open plastic basket in the laundry room. Note that the holding area must be an open container (and be sure your wet cloth isn’t balled up when it goes in) otherwise you will end up with a seriously stagnant stench. Blech!

In our house, white cloths are for kitchen jobs and they can get washed with any towel load. Any cloth made of colored or patterned cloth is for outside or bathroom cleaning. They have their own separate basket in the laundry room and get washed by themselves. (If you use cloth diapers or pads you could add these to that load). Honestly, I don’t know if laundry cross-contamination is a legitimate concern or not, but I’d rather not risk it.

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Cheap Meals On The Web

One of the best ways to stretch your grocery dollar is by letting nothing go to waste and really eating through your pantry. Finding a way to get rid of that container of plain yogurt you bought by mistake and all of those garden tomatoes is only a click away…
Enter the ingredients you have on hand and it will list what you can make.
This United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) site not only lets you search by ingredient but also by cost per serving, cost per dish, nutritional content, audience, and cooking equipment.
Another site where you can enter the ingredients you have on hand and it will list what you can make.

All Recipes also offers searching a section on budget cooking:


Saving With Green Cleaning and Beauty

For beauty and cleaning supplies, if you simply replace traditional commercial products with commercial eco-friendly products it really will hit you hard. You have to go into the green with a mentality of consuming and buying less.

One-for-one product replacement misses the point of going green since even the eco-friendly commercial products still come in plastic bottles, require shipping, and generate waste (or need to be recycled which uses energy).

Here are some ideas that might be worth trying: Can you use olive oil instead of lotion? Can you shampoo half as much as you do now? Can you make your own cleaning supplies for cheaper (with the added bonus of less packaging)? Can you buy castile soap in bulk and then use it for many things (from cleaning your home to cleaning your face)? Can you use baking soda instead of deodorant (just rub a generous pinch into each pit)?

Now, let’s move onto green cleaning specifically. I suggest reading the books Green Clean and Organic Housekeeping if you are serious about this kind of cleaning. OH talks about the science of cleaning and how it works (which makes you feel that you really can clean organically, if you are doing the right things) and gives some recipes. GC gives lots of recipes and is more anecdotal in tone.

Here are some common ingredients and where I found them (in Northern Virginia).

Washing Soda
If your grocery store doesn’t have washing soda then request it! Barring that, you can get washing soda at Amazon or look for “PH Up” at a pool supply store. Get it for hot tubs and not pools as the pool kind tends to have other things added. Another place to look is an aquarium store since fish tanks need to have their PH changed. You want it to say 100% sodium carbonate on the label. It is also known as soda ash. It will be quite pricey at a pool store, though. I paid $8 for 1 pound at a pool store before I found it at a grocery store where it was $3 for 4 pounds.

I found borax at Wal-Mart in the laundry aisle. The brand I’ve seen at several places is called 20 Mule Team. It is also available on Amazon.

Fels Naphtha Soap
I haven’t been able to find Fels Naptha Soap locally. Amazon sells it by the bar or in a package of thirty bars.

Instead, I decided to go with Dr. Bronner’s which they sell at Whole Foods. This will make a much milder product than the Fels Naphtha would. I currently am using the unscented/baby variety.

Most dry recipes call for grated soap, so I used our food processor to grate it into a chunky powder which I store in a jar.

Baking Soda
Baking soda in normal quantities can be found at any grocery store. I think I got my 4 lb box of baking soda at Wal-Mart in the laundry aisle. At work they have a twelve pound resalable bag of baking soda (probably from Costco), which I covet.

White vinegar can be found at any grocery store. The longer your jug lasts you, the longer between consuming plastic bottles, so the bigger the better!

Storage Jars & Spray Bottles
All of our dry cleaning mixes are stored reused jars. Containers that cannot be recycled are particularly good for this since otherwise they would just go in the trash. (We have a few #7 plastic ones.) Our spray bottles are from Wal-Mart and Dollar Tree. Some people save the spray bottles from commercial cleaning products to refill with their new homemade cleaners. Personally, I am hesitant to do this.


Organic and Local Eating

My thoughts on organic food from an environmental standpoint (and not a health standpoint, which may be the bigger concern for you): many chain grocery stores* have responded to demand for organic by transporting organic from the cheapest bidder, likely across the county. The resources to transport the organic food add back in pollution that the organic growing saved. Buying locally is perhaps a better choice and buying locally and organic is the best choice. Here’s one article to get you thinking:

BUT, if your family has decided that eating organic is important to you, your grocery budget is going to reflect that value and will probably be higher than others’ budgets.

  1. Is there anywhere else in your budget that doesn’t reflect your values as much, and you could cut back there to sustain your food budget?
  2. Do you eat out a lot? If so, keep in mind that most of that is probably not organic. Cutting out one meal out each week or each month might help you feel better about your grocery budget.
  3. If you shop at farmer’s markets, make sure you are actually getting local produce. I went to one FM recently and afterwards I read their regulations online. At this particular one, there are no regulations about where the vendors come from, so things might not truly be local. Also, resale is allowed so these might not actually be farm employees who could tell you about how the food was grown. Heck, people could be buying from the grocery store and reselling it. We are happy to pay more for local produce, but we want to make sure it really is local. From now on we will stick with the other nearby FM that sets a radius for participants.

*I am not including Whole Food in this assumption. I am no big fan of Whole Foods, but in their defense over the past few years they have made a huge effort to buy locally and promote that they buy locally. If you read articles to the contrary, be sure to check out the publishing date. I got stuck on several negative articles that were several years old and thus before their shift.


Food Shopping– Part 2

  1. Learning to cut down a grocery budget is a gradual thing. Cut your budget by reasonable amount each month (say $20) and get used to your buying power at that amount before lowering it more. You have to grow into eating smaller and/or cheaper for it to stick.

  2. Pick an expensive thing you buy and try to half your consumption for the month. For me it was breakfast bars. I used to eat a Zone Bar every day at $1 a day and that added up. So, I switched to breakfast bars at $3ish per box and stayed with that for several years before I recently rethought that. Sure, $3 a box isn’t expensive in the scheme of life, but I knew I could do better. My new tactic is to make a big batch of oatmeal-wheat muffins every few weeks. I freeze all that I won’t eat in a week. I can add make them nutritious than a commercial product and they have no preservatives.

  3. We don’t have a separate freezer or pantry, but we try to really use the space we have. Remove things from their packaging as much as possible to fit more in. Also, as yard sale season comes up, look for some organizer that you could fit on top of your fridge or in a coat closet. Those two areas have expanded our storing ability.

  4. Eat seasonally. Produce goes on super sale at certain times of the year. Stock up then! We eat tons of asparagus in the spring (best price ever, $1 a pound in spring of 07). We eat lots of cranberry items in the fall. Anyone can freeze their surplus, with the proper equipment you could can or dehydrate your surplus if you are into that. (We dehydrate with a $5 rummage sale dehydrator. I have canning supplies that I received as a gift, but have never gotten around to using those.)

  5. Love your slow-cooker. Tough cuts of meat are cheaper and after a day in the crock pot they are tender and flavorful. That would be one way to get cheaper organic meat (though you may have to call the grocery store and talk to their butcher to get stuff set aside if they don’t normally put it out). If you have a Betty Crocker cookbook (the red plaid), or can get one at the library, it will explain the different cuts of meat and how to cook them to the appropriate tenderness.

  6. Milk and cooking: Use powdered milk when cooking instead of liquid milk. It is much cheaper. Unless the dish is milk-heavy (like pudding) the taste won’t be impacted. You can also buy powdered buttermilk. If you can’t find dry buttermilk, you can use your liquid milk to make buttermilk. Wikipedia gives these recipes: For recipes, a substitute for buttermilk can be made by adding 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar or 1 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar to each cup of regular milk. The soured milk should be allowed to sit for ten minutes before being used. A low-fat substitute can be made by mixing equal parts of skim milk and low-fat yogurt or sour cream.

  7. Know what you have. I got sick of buying duplicate spices (man, those little bottles are expensive), so I made a list of what we have. It is so great when I want to make a recipe to just look on the list (hung inside the cabinet) and be able to see instantly if we have the right ingredients.

  8. If we know that we have something (like right now we have tons of flavored orzo from the discontinued product shelf) then we build a meal around that. Anything that calls for normal pasta gets served with orzo instead.


Non-Food Products Grocery Savings

    Cleaning Supplies

    Moving to the dirt cheap organic homemade cleaners is cutting our costs, for sure (see green clean tagged posts). There just are a few basic, cheap ingredients required. Baking soda and vinegar are readily available and cheap. Borax is also readily available once I started looking for it (also cheap). Soda Ash/Washing Soda/Sodium Carbonate (three names for the same thing) was hard to find at first. From a pool supply store I bought Hot Tub PH Up which is the same thing with a fancier name (not to be confused with Pool PH Up which contains other things). It was rather pricey $8 for 1 pound. After awhile, though, I was able to find it in the local grocery store at 3 pounds for $2.49. A much better price!

    I suggest the books Green Clean, and Organic Housekeeping: In Which the Nontoxic Avenger… to get started on green cleaning. They will tell you how to do it and why conventional products aren’t all they are cracked up to be. (Be extra cheap and check your library for them instead of buying them.)

    Laundry & Dish Soaps & Detergents

    Take a look at your soaps and detergents. Are they concentrated or say use one third less or similar? If so, the good news is that your product probably uses less packing than traditional ones. Yay! The downside is that in reality it is hard to use one third less. How exactly one can use one-third of a squirt of dish soap is a mystery to me. In this case, just be aware that your soap is super-concentrated and overusing it is literally putting money down the drain. So, stick to just one light squirt or add water into the bottle and shake to thin the soap out.

    Soap & Shampoo & Razors

    As for soap and shampoo, I always put them on my birthday and Christmas wish lists. Yes, that sounds strange, but hang with me…while my family thinks giving normal soap, etc. is lame, they are just fine with getting me fancy ones from Lush or the like. I am loaded up on fancy soap for probably two years after this past Christmas! Same thing with shampoo. While I am fine with cheap shampoo, my mom thinks it is girly-fun to buy me special shampoos. I go with it ;) I haven’t bought razors in years. I either get them as stocking stuffers or I also take advantage of “free after rebate” razor offers in the weekend coupons.

    Ladies Only

    If menstrual products seem expensive to you, consider a Diva Cup (about $25 for 10 years worth of no tampons is a beautiful thing to some people). Want to go even more hardcore cheap? If you are crafty and have scrap fabric, make cloth pads or liners (you can also buy cloth pads from Etsy). If this stuff is not your style, that is A-OK with me. I’m just the idea lady!


    Portion Size- The Stealth Saver

    1. Portion size matters. Keep your meat portions to the “right” size (3 oz/size of a deck of cards) and fill the rest of your plate with cheaper things like big salads, other veggies, fruit, and starchy things like pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, bread.
    2. Since we cut back on meat, sides are fair game for eating all of. Hey, they’re cheap, fill up!
    3. Serve your food on small plates. You’ll take less when there isn’t all of that empty space to fill.
    4. Protect your leftovers. My husband used to eat into the entrees we’d meant for leftovers, so we now either portion that out right away (before serving) or decide together how much of the main course needs to be left untouched.


    1. In the past we’ve bought our cleaning supplies from the dollar store, but now we are moving to natural cleaners instead (baking soda, washing soda, vinegar, borax, etc.) which will be on par with dollar store prices, if not cheaper.

    2. We rarely use paper towels; instead we use small rags (cut up old t-shirts) as one-use and wash cloths (we keep them in a canister so they’re not unsightly). Fewer things to buy over and over, fewer things to throw away!

    3. We also are moving towards cloth napkins instead of paper. It makes every meal feel a little fancier, too.

    4. For parties, we bust out real dishes, glasses, and flatware instead of buying disposables. The only cost is running the dishwasher an extra load and the only waste is dirty water. Plus, it is fun to get use out of wedding presents we rarely use – like special green plates just for desserts or a whole set of glasses just for cordials [what were we thinking :)].


    Food Shopping- Part 1

    Our grocery budget is $250 per month*, but we are under enough that we can afford to do Let’s Dish 2-3 times per year. Since we live in a high cost of living area (DC ‘burbs), it amazes me that we keep things at this price, but I track our spending every month so I know that I’m not deluding myself :)

    Here are some of our strategies:

    1. We cut coupons and pair them with sales found in print ads and on

    2. I shop with a calculator and calculate the cheapest per unit price. Calculating the unit price is the only formula for knowing if generic or brand name on sale plus a coupon is cheaper.

    3. When calculating unit price watch out for packages that look to be the same size but actually contain different amount of product (e.g. the meager but delicious Yoplait Whips v. normal Yoplait)

    4. We mostly drink water, so no soda or coffee costs. (Okay, okay, when soda is on super sale we do stock up for parties.) We do get one thing of juice and milk per week.

    5. We almost never buy prepared foods and try to buy to minimize the packaging in what we buy (environmental concern as well). If the price comes out about even we try to go with the less packaging choice. For example, purchased pudding cups versus making my own is about the same, price wise. But, if I make my own then there is almost no waste. Plus, though pudding isn’t the most amazingly fun thing to make, it is free entertainment (at some level right?). :)

    6. We cook in large quantities and freeze the leftovers in lunch and dinner-size portions. Once you get a good stock going variety isn’t an issue. Fewer recipes means fewer ingredients bought. It also means fewer dishes to wash – saving water, soap, time etc.

    7. We repurpose food so that nothing goes to waste. Leftover salad becomes sandwich lettuce the next day, an extra chicken breast goes on top of a chef salad for lunch, etc.

    8. We don’t buy things if they aren’t at the best price. For example, that means we only buy chicken when it is <$2 a pound. When it is that price we stock up. If it is over that, we just don't buy it. We use our freezer and pantry to load up on good deals.

    9. Knowing the best price is worth your time. We kept a price book for six months. I compared the prices for the same, cheapest per unit item at several different grocery stores. That way I would know if a sale was really a deal with stocking up on. We also learned which sales were worthwhile. For example, in our area $0.50 yogurt is a normal sale price, so that is our “best price”. We won’t buy yogurt for more than that unless we need a yogurt splurge for some crazy reason; $0.33 yogurt is truly a sale; and $0.25 yogurt is worth some serious fridge space.

    10. When stocking up on dairy deals buy low or no fat items. They have a really long shelf life. Fat = spoilage

    11. What can you buy in a large quantity for cheap and then make into you own convenience food? For example, we buy 2lb of blocks cheese and shred it with our food processor or Kitchen Aid with shredder attachment. We then put the shredded cheese straight into the freezer and pull out handfuls as we need it (it defrosts almost instantly). When we buy those huge family packs of chicken breasts, we separate them into our own cooking-size packages before freezing. While the chicken is out for repackaging, we trim them. No expensive pre-trimmed Perdue for us! When I cut off the white stuff, little bits of extra, good, pink chicken tend to come off, too. I put all of those good bits in a separate freezer container for a quick stir-fry or chicken nuggets meal.

    12. What can you grow instead of buy? If space permits, consider gardening for cheap food and a cheap hobby.

    *No, we don’t eat out a ton to keep our grocery budget low :) Our dinging out budget is $80 per month for eating out together. Any lunches out come from our fun money (a set amount we each get to spend or save each month without being accountable to the other for it), but we each only eat out about once lunch per week.