Thrifty gifty

Recently I went thrift store shopping and happened across a couple of big rolls of solid blue wallpaper. It was boring as wallpaper, but I decided it would probably make excellent thick, rich-feeling gift wrap. I snagged both rolls for the princely sum of $2. On a hunch, I scanned the next two thrift stores I visited for discarded wallpaper. At one thrift store I found a good-sized roll of brown craft paper with gold stars for 99 cents.  At another, I found two huge rolls of grey and silver foil wallpaper for $3 total.

The elegant foil is cloth-backed and feels way nicer even than Current gift wrap.  It will be great for weddings, baby showers or girls’ birthdays. Altogether I paid $6 for five big rolls of paper that will most likely last me years. I was pleased with my find. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found at a thrift store?

Top Money-Saving Tips of 2009

Check out Good Morning America Food Editor Sarah Moulton’s Best Cookbooks of 2009 (video!) Notice a certain orange-covered book on that list?   To celebrate, I’m giving away 5 copies of  Family Feasts for $75 a Week.  To enter, comment and share a money saving tip of your own.


You know the drill. You walk into the grocery store with a long list and a finite budget. The last thing you want to do is spend two weeks’ worth of grocery money on one week of food. But prices these days make it ever more challenging to stay within a budget. What’s a smart shopper to do?

1. Make a list and check it twice

Lists are tremendous money savers. Begin by thinking in terms of meals. Before I head to the store, I scribble out ideas for two weeks of dinners. Half the meals are family favorites: cheesy chicken enchiladas, creamy potato soup, and pasta carbonera are regulars. I then thumb through cookbooks and fill the rest of the two weeks with new and interesting-sounding recipes.

Once I’ve decided what we’ll be eating for the next couple weeks, next I write down the ingredients that I lack for those recipes. I skim recipes, check the pantry, dig through the freezer, and check my cupboards, making sure that everything I’ll need is either in my kitchen or on my grocery list.   Once I have all the dinner ingredients written down, I add the items we typically use for breakfast and lunch, as well as goodies to make baking possible.

2. Go to the store less often

When you run out of something, write it on your grocery list.   But don’t race to the store the instant your list gets an item or two on it.  Every trip to the store is a  temptation to impulse-buy. So I challenge myself to go just a day or two longer between shopping trips. We live 20 minutes from the store.  The other day when I didn’t want to run to the store just for hamburger buns, I made my own fresh homemade rolls.

3. Expand the list of things you can make yourself

Did you know that you can easily make your own granola? Homemade white sauce takes 5 minutes to make and costs a fraction of a can of cream soup.  Homemade salad dressing is equally fast and will save you a cool $2. Not bad for a 5 minute time investment.  Even better if it saves you a trip to the store where you would potentially spend much more on impulse buys.  Learning to make just one item per week will consistently give you more money in your pocket.  Remember, it’s not only this week’s new recipe that will save you money.  Gradually learning to make a variety of things for yourself will make your savings snowball.

4. Stock up when prices hit rock bottom

And I mean REALLY stock up.  In October I bought enough ground beef on sale to last til February, which effectively extended that October sale for months, for me anyway.  This month I put lots of $1.50/lb butter in the freezer, enough to make baking more affordable all winter for us.

5. Don’t be afraid to try new recipes

To earn a repeat appearance in my kitchen, a recipe needs to be tasty, easy to cook, and have ingredients that are affordable and easy to find.  Don’t overlook ethnic food. I’ve found Chinese, Mexican and Ethiopian food to be both affordable and delicious. This West African Peanut Chicken is a good example. And here’s another bonus:  ethnic grocery stores often have great prices on things like spices, sesame oil, coconut milk, and specialty pasta.

6. Remember WHY you want to save money

I developed my money-saving strategies so that I could stay home with my kids.   You may be dreaming  of finding enough extra cash to pay off a car or take a cruise or have another baby.   Keeping your goals clearly in mind will make it easier to do the little daily things that will move you towards that goal!

Family Feasts for $75 a Week

Welcome to the Owlhaven!  Click the recipes tab at the top of the page to get a preview of some of the 200 recipes in my book.  Also included are hundreds of frugal shopping tips, sure to save you money at the store. My cookbook is available at:

If you’d like to read the very first review of the book, visit Merlot Mudpies.  There are lots more reviews to read at!

Easiest homemade bread ever

One night when I was watching TV very late, I came across a cooking show with Mark Bittman, where he described the easiest bread recipe ever.   Google sent me to this post at Steamy Kitchen.   I tried the recipe and loved it, and thought you might like it too.    The trick is to use a heavy oven-safe container with a lid.  I use a cast iron Dutch oven that is 10 inches in diameter and about 4-5 inches deep. Other people use enamel-covered pots or deep casserole dishes with lids.  (Check thrift stores before you buy a new pan.)

Below you’ll find amounts for a double recipe, which makes one big loaf and is a good amount for my pan.  My family can finish it off in one meal.  A smaller family would get a couple meals at least out of it.

Easiest Bread Ever

4 cups white flour

2 cups wheat flour

1 teaspoon yeast

1/2 tablespoon salt

3 cups warm water

Mix together flour, yeast and salt.  Add warm water.  Mix again til well combined.  It will be a very wet sloppy-looking dough.  Let rise in a covered bowl for 8-24 hours.  Dump dough out onto a floured counter and knead with wet hands just until top of dough is smooth.  Don’t try to incorporate lots of flour– one of the reasons that this recipe works so well is because of the high water content in the dough.  Re-wet your hands if dough starts to stick to you.

Once the top of dough is smooth, flop the blob onto a floured tea towel.   (If you only have terrycloth towels, use a pillowcase).  Set the dough, tea towel and all, into a tall narrow bowl to rise for 1-2 hours. It will still be very loose and jiggly– DON’T worry!! It will work anyway!

Near the end of the rise time, rub the inside of your pot with a little shortening and place it into the oven set on 500 degrees.  Preheat pot and oven for at least 10 minutes– you want it to be good and hot.  Once oven and pot are hot, lift dough out of the bowl –carry it using the tea towel like a little ‘hammock’.  Flip it over into the pot, removing the tea towel.  Don’t worry if it looks blobby and ugly.  When it is baked, it will be a lovely rustic-looking loaf.

Put the lid on the pot.   Bake, covered, in a 500 degree oven for 40 minutes.   After 40 minutes, remove the lid, and continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes. Remove when the top is a nice golden brown.   Loaf should sound hollow when thumped.  If you’re not sure if it is done, you can bake it for a few minutes more without hurting anything.  This is a very forgiving recipe.  Last time I made this, I forgot to remove the lid, and baked it 25 minutes too long, and it still turned out beautifully.

Let me know if you try this recipe.  I’d love to hear how it works for you.


Related links

This bread is wonderful with Confetti Pepperoni Soup

Or try it with Homemade Grape Jelly

Money Saving Links

Here’s a simple affordable meal:  Egg drop soup

Like crackers with your soup?  Try making your own Homemade crackers

If you are contemplating raising a few chickens so you’ll have eggs all the time, here’s a simple chicken run plan.  (Pssst, hubby?  Pleeeease?)

And finally, the grand-daddy of money-saving ideas:  112 ways to save money

Have you come across any good money-saving links lately?   I’d love to see them!


Related link:  What to do about a recession

Towel skirts

A few weeks ago I saw an adorable idea over at Grace Violet– a way to make a little girl’s skirt from a kitchen towel. I found some adorable spring-colored towels at WalMart ($2 each) and on Monday, when I was in extreme need of a doldrum-lifting activity, I finally got around to making the skirts. The towels that Grace Violet used were actually dollar-store tea towels. Mine are terrycloth, which will make them excellent little swimsuit cover-ups this summer. My girls wear size 8 and size 5, and the two skirts took 3 towels.

I liked the way the towels coordinate with each other.  For my older daughter, I used one whole floral towel and half of a striped one. The floral towel had a ribbon edge, which I left on as an accent. The width of the towel was a good length for my 6 year old daughter as is, so I decided that instead of encasing the elastic (which would make the skirt shorter), I would just sew elastic to the inside of the waist of the skirt with a couple rows of stitching. I happened to already have some nice soft 1.5 inch wide elastic, and doing it this way gave me a cute ruffly top edge. Finished, the skirt shows a section of striped fabric at one hip, and is half floral and half striped in the back.

I made my 4 years old’s skirt a wrap style.  One full towel wraps around the back and sides.  Then the half towel left over from the other skirt goes in the center front of the skirt as an underneath layer. The elastic only goes 3/4 of the way around the skirt, leaving the front center bit smooth. I decorated the front edge with a bit of wide ribbon. (I salvaged the ribbon from a headband that a child-who-shall-remain-nameless cut in half with a scissors awhile back.)

I cased the waistband elastic by folding over the top edge of the fabric as shown on the above Grace Violet tutorial. Since I was using terrycloth, that ended up to be a bit bulky, but it is still cute. As you can see, I turned the center inset so that the stripes were going the other direction, which adds more interest to the skirt.

The second skirt took more time, since I had to figure out how to make the ‘wrap’ and that ended up being a more complicated process. But still, the whole project took me about 2 hours, and the girls love the skirts. The skirts look cute with leggings, and the girls have worn them two days this week already!

Wedding Decisions: Thinking creatively

Wedding planning is progressing at full speed.  I’d love to share details, but am also working hard on keeping my daughter’s day hers, which means– sorry — keeping most of the planning under wraps until the big reveal.  It’s hard because I’m involved and I’m excited and I think they are coming up with some fun ideas that will be interesting to others.  You’ll have to wait a while for major details, and of course for pictures.  But from time to time in the next weeks, I’ll share just a tidbit here and there of the parts in which I am involved.

I’ve read that weddings can cost in the range of $20,000.  That number blows my mind.   Having priced wedding items lately, I can totally understand how easily one could spend that much by making standard choices.  But coming from the perspective of having spent less than $1000 on my own wedding, those numbers just stagger me.  Granted, that was 22 years ago, and even then, our wedding was incredible low-cost.  But thanks to some creative thinking, our wedding was every bit as nice as any we’d attended.  It was beautiful and meaningful, and a great party.

A big key in keeping a wedding affordable is to scrutinize every money outlay, and to consider whether there might be a less expensive option.  It’s not about being chintzy.  It’s about being smart.   There are lots of ‘standard’ ways to do things.   But — big hint — standard is usually expensive.

Here’s an example.  I’ve been thinking of ways to make the cake table interesting at the reception.  I’ve seen various pretty tiered trays that display food with height and interest.  The first way to get that look would be to just shell out the bucks for something lovely.   Here’s a gorgeous three tiered china tray that would be a beautiful way to serve candy or nuts for $79. Here’s a two-tiered version that is also nice that would only set you back $60.

Now, keep in mind that you don’t have to have a tiered tray.   We could choose to serve nuts out of a church-owned dish that looks just fine.  Cost = $0.   If we were really trying to pinch every penny, that would be what we’d do. And it would be fine.

But as I was envisioning the cake table, I didn’t want to give up on my idea.  I wondered what I could find that was interesting that would only cost a few dollars.  Yesterday I had a free half hour between dropping off kids at various play practices. Out of curiosity I swung by the thrift store.  This was actually the second thrift store I’d visited with this mission in mind.  I wasn’t even sure if I could find something suitable, but I decided it was worth a shot and I wandered the aisles with a deliberately open mind.

Half way through the store I found a black, wrought-iron 3-tiered rack.  It was just framework– it didn’t have any serving plates.  But it had a nice shape.  And for $3.50, it look promising.  I grabbed it and wandered a bit more.

Tiered rack

Tiered rack

In a section of mismatched china, I found a set of 4 white china luncheon bowls.  They were in perfect condition.  They settled into the spaces of my tiered rack as if they had been made for it. They even had a little silver edge for an elegant touch.   Cost of the bowls= $4, which made my lovely tiered rack cost a total of $7.50.

closeup of china

closeup of china

Those types of choices aren’t available for every wedding-related item.   But the more willing we are to think outside the box, the more personal the wedding will become, and the more money the bride and groom — and their families — will have for other things.

Useful Wedding Websites

Wedding planning, book writing, and Missoula Children’s Theater (4 of my kids got parts!) are threatening to suck up all my time this week in the foreseeable future, so I thought I’d share a few links to sites that have captured some of my interest lately.  Please pretend this is an actual post.  Note:  scroll to bottom if you don’t happen to have a need for wedding links.


Wedding Flowers and Reception Ideas

David’s Bridal

Yummi Candles

Floral Designs

How to make ribbon roses

Make a Boutonniere

Estimating Catering Quantities


And in case y’all are interested, my second book is a chapter and a half from DONE, and my first book A Sane Woman’s Guide to Mothering a Large Family is AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER ON AMAZON!!!!!!   (You’ll forgive me for shouting that bit of news, won’t you?)  Go check it out!

Almost instant, totally delicious dessert

Awhile back someone gave me a recipe for a really easy dessert that you just dump into a pan in layers. Canned pineapple, canned cherries, a cake mix, and 2 sticks of butter were the main ingredients. Oh, it was good! Problem was, I never had cake mixes or canned cherries just sitting around. And buying all those ingredients just for one dessert was a little pricey. So I made up my own dump cake, one that takes things I do happen to have around most of the time. It is every bit as yummy as the original recipe, but it requires a little less butter and it is much more affordable.

Almost Instant, Totally Delicious Dump Cake

Makes one 9×12 pan
Prep time: 5 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes at 400 degrees

2 quarts of peaches or apricots
2 cups flour
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 sticks of butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Open both jars of fruit. You’re going to use the liquid from one jar of fruit, and set aside the juice from the other jar for a different purpose, such as tomorrow’s breakfast orange juice. Pour both jars of fruit plus the juice from one of the jars of fruit into a 9×12 casserole dish.

(If you don’t happen to have home-canned fruit, store-bought is fine. You’ll need about 8 cups of drained fruit with about 2 cups of liquid. Any kind of fruit will work: fruit cocktail, apples, peaches, and pineapple all work well.)

In a medium sized bowl mix flour, white sugar, brown sugar, baking soda and baking powder. Sprinkle evenly over all the fruit. Slice 1-1/2 sticks of butter into many little ‘pats’. Arrange them evenly over the top of the flour and sugar mixture. yes, it will seem like a lot of butter, but this is a dessert, remember? And it is yummy, I promise you! Just don’t eat the whole panful yourself and you’ll be fine.

Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, or until cake is browned with little crispy bits, and little bubbles of juice filling are popped up through the crust here and there. Serve while warm, with ice cream if desired.

This recipe redo really works for me!

30 Days of Nothing

30 Days Just wanted to remind you all about the 30 Days of Nothing that I’m planning for September– a mere two weeks away. Details are here. Feel free to grab the button to mention it on your own site, whether or not you decide to play. Feel free to email me for the code (owlhaven at aol dot com) if you need it. I’m really hoping lots of you will decide to play along.