Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month

The title, Once a Month Cooking, made me laugh. Cook once a month? I didn’t need a book to do that. I needed the motivation to cook the other 29 days of the month, too!

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I didn’t actually read that book until years later when I met up with co-author Mary Beth Lagerborg. I learned that “once-a-month cooking” is a method of preparing a month’s (or two weeks’) dinner entrees in one mega-cooking session, and then freezing them for use throughout the month.

While Mary Beth along with her co-author Mimi Wilson have developed a specific and thorough plan for preparing many meals at one time, any effort that results in preparing meals now to be used later has decided benefits:

1. Convenience. Having entrees in the freezer provides the convenience of take-out but with the aroma, appeal and taste of home cooking.

2. Simplification. Nothing unravels the seams of family time faster than having nothing on hand for dinner. Knowing dinner’s ready to go promotes household calm and peace. 

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Readers Question HE Detergent, Flaxseed Oil and Dental Savings Plans

DEAR MARY: I have been making and using your concentrated laundry detergent for several years now and love saving money with it. But sometimes I end up with white chunky solids at the bottom of the container. Am I doing something wrong? Jean

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DEAR JEAN: This “crystalization” that forms after awhile is perfectly normal and harmless. I usually go through a gallon of this concentrate so fast, that doesn’t have a chance to happen. But when it does, I use it up just as if it were still fully liquified. No harm, no foul. I find that if I shake it well each time I use it, the crystallization is less pronounced. If this is a huge problem for you, you could easily halve the recipe to make 1/2 gallon of liquid laundry detergent concentrate at a time.

And now, even though you did not ask but because others will, our homemade laundry detergent is HE compliant, meaning suitable for use in high-efficiency (HE) washing machines. It is completely sudsless which is required for use in low water volume machines, provided you are using a very small amount—2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup maximum. Remember it is highly concentrated.

DEAR MARY: I was totally shocked to read in your recent post, Cast Iron Skillets Making a Healthy Comeback, that the best oil to use to season a cast iron skillet is flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil has a smoke point of 225 F, after which the oil begins to produce harmful free radicals. What is author Ellen Brown’s reasoning for using flax seed oil? Debbie

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A Shoemaker Can Save Your Sole—and More

To some people a cobbler is a lovely fruit dessert, best when served warm. To others it is a shoemaker who repairs shoes—an almost forgotten trade. And that’s changing. Suddenly, shoe repair is coming back. Big time.

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Sales of luxury goods are down, but it’s a flush time for people who repair them. High-end cobblers, tailors and jewelers have seen a spike in repair business from frugal customers, thanks to a trend toward fixing goods rather than replacing them. We’re quickly moving from a disposable society to one that’s learning to mend and make do.

According to Randy Lipson, third-generation cobbler and owner of Cobblestone Shoe Repair in St. Louis, shoe repair shops nationwide (of which there are only about 7,500 remaining—down by half from a decade ago) are reporting a 20 to 45 percent surge in business. Things are beginning to shift as consumers are learning to make do. And for many, that means getting shoes that fit, fixed.

Not long ago I grabbed the opportunity to sit down with Randy and I learned a lot—not only about the value of repairing rather than replacing shoes, but also that a shoe repair shop does more than just repair shoes.

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Beware of this Risk with Gift Cards

Gift cards have become the go-to gift for millions of people. They might seem like the perfect present because it’s so easy. You don’t have to put modicum of thought into the gift and generally a gift card it is well-received. Many people are happy to get them. Unless, of course, they get stuck holding cards from retailers or restaurants who file for bankruptcy—either full dissolution or reorganization—before they get a chance to redeem that gift card.

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Millions of consumers holding gift cards for American Apparel, RadioShack, Wet Seal, Sports Authority, Sharper Image, Brookstone and others on the growing list of recently failed or financially ailing businesses need to pay attention to what follows.

Even though I am not a fan of gifts cards, in the past I have suggested that if you must buy one, you should choose a card issued by a retailer—not a bank-issued gift card—because generally retailer gift cards are free of expiration dates, annoying fees and other gotchas.

With worsening economic conditions, consumers should think twice about retailer-issued gift cards. Store-issued cards are not as good a deal as you’d think because of the danger of bankruptcy and or some other court-approved reorganization.

Never forget this: Gift cards are not the same as cash. When you buy a gift card you are purchasing store credit at that retailer. You may know something about store credit if you ever tried to return something only to have your refund denied for some technicality. Instead, the clerk offers you store credit in the same amount as a refund should have been. That’s exactly what a gift card is—store credit that can be used only at the store identified on that card. 

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Cast Iron Skillets Making a Healthy Comeback

I must have been all of 8-years old the day I decided to surprise my mother by cleaning her old black cast iron skillet. It embarrassed me that over the years it had become so gross. Apparently, she’d fried just a few too many eggs and browned too many Sunday roasts in it without restoring it back to its clean, “shiny-ness” with a copper bottom—like the rest of our pots and pans.

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I started with household cleanser and steel wool. I scrubbed on a single spot for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t break through that burned on “crust” to save my soul. Finally, I just gave up.

What I wouldn’t realize until years later was that I was working on a fine piece of cast iron—a skillet on which I’m sure I managed to un-do years of coveted “seasoning” that makes a cast iron skillet virtually nonstick.

In the years since then I’ve had quite a relationship with cast iron— from all-out hate, moving into tolerance and finally to true love. And I’m not the only one. Cast iron skillets are making a big comeback among home cooks.

Many people shy away from cast iron because of the weight. Surprisingly, they find the muscles to handle the load once they realize how well cast iron conducts heat and goes from stovetop to oven with no problem.

Cast iron skillets never buckle, you don’t have to worry about the finish being scraped off; cast iron is virtually indestructible, lasting for generations—even at the hand of an 8-year-old wielding cleanser, steel wool and sharp scraping implements.

And did I mention the health benefits? Food cooked in cast iron is fortified with iron—up to 20 times more iron than when cooked in a steel or aluminum vessel. When you cook in cast iron you use less oil. Cast iron is a chemical-free alternative to nonstick pans.

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Put a Big Smile on Your Face with a Dental Savings Plan

Last week I got a frantic letter from Lisa who’s facing an emergency dental situation with a $15,000 price tag on it. She is desperate for options that will let her keep her teeth while not plunging her into debt.

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Another letter from the Madison family related that their finances are so tight, they cannot afford the luxury of regular dental care—not even routine x-rays and cleaning. That letter ended, “Is there a dental plan for families in our situation? Please answer soon before our teeth fall out!”

While I am not a dentist, I know that dental care is not a luxury. It is essential to the good health of every family member. And the best way for the Madisons to avoid big dental bills is to practice regular preventive care. Even then, routine hygiene and x-rays should be seen as absolutely mandatory.

As for Lisa, she’s in a really tough situation. I’m not confident that dental insurance, if by some miracle she could get it now, would be that helpful. The problem is that typically you must wait six months to a year before certain procedures are covered. Her condition could be excluded completely as preexisting. Then there’s a maximum annual benefit of $1,000 to $1,500. And the annual premium on most individual dental plans? Typically half of the annual benefit. I’m not certain if any portion of her $15,000 dilemma would be considered cosmetic, but I hope not because most dental insurance does not cover cosmetic procedures.

I am excited because I have good news for Lisa and the Madison family—something I hope all of my readers will also consider seriously: Dental Savings Plans. These plans are not insurance, don’t work like insurance and do not carry the downside of most dental insurance.

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Mix Up Your Own Vinegar, Donate the Hotel Toiletries

DEAR MARY: I’ve noticed that on the gallon jug of white vinegar it says “mixed with water to a 5% acidity.” Is it possible to buy pure vinegar and dilute it to whatever acidity i want for myself? The gallons are heavy and take up storage space. Just thinking there might be an easier way. By the way, I love all of the homemade cleaners you share! Cally

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DEAR CALLY: Yes, there is a way that you can mix your own vinegar and to the exact level of acidity you desire.

White vinegar consists of 5 to 20 percent acetic acid and water, which has a variety of industrial, medical and domestic uses.

An easy way to create 5-percent acidity is to mix 1/2 cup acetic acid with 1 gallon water. To make 30-percent acidity (ideal as a very potent weed killer), mix 3 cups of acetic acid to one gallon water.

The challenge is to find and then safely store acetic acid. You must be very careful to keep it safely out of reach of children and pets and clearly labeled. It has very strong fumes and should be handled cautiously.

You can get a quart of Food Grade Glacial Acetic Acid from Amazon for about $19 including shipping. One quart would make 8 gallons of vinegar with 5-percent acidity (1/2 cup acetic acid per 1 gallon water) at a cost of about $2.40 per gallon. This would produce supermarket-strength white vinegar you could us to make salad dressing, as substitute for fabric softener; your own scum and soap remover for the tub and shower, a batch of regular homemade weed killer and to be used in many other ways around the house.

Making your own white vinegar will achieve your goals to lighten your load and cut down on storage space. As a bonus, you could easily save you a few bucks over the course of time, depending how much vinegar you use.

I pay about $3 for one gallon white vinegar at Costco (it comes in a 1.32 gallon jug for about $4). I rip through a gallon in no time at all, which means I usually buy several jugs at a time. I know what you mean about a heavy load! The average price for a gallon of white vinegar at Walmart looks to be about $5.

Compare what you are paying to the $2.40 per gallon price mentioned above. I think we’ve got a winner! Thanks for the idea.

CAUTION: When using white vinegar in your washing machine as a substitute for liquid fabric softener, DO NOT use full strength acetic acid! Only use white vinegar with 5-percent acidity (1/2 cup acetic acid to 1 gallon of water if you are mixing your own).

DEAR MARY: I have bags and bags of hotel soaps—you know, stuffed away after trips (guess we traveled more than we realized). Anyway, do you know of anyone or an organization that would be interested in them? I have melted down way more than I need already. Elgie

DEAR ELGIE: Oh yes! Consider gifting these toiletries to a homeless shelter your area. Homeless shelters are one of the most direct ways to get your toiletries to someone who needs them. You can find a homeless shelter near you on the Homeless Shelter Directory.

Another option would be a local women’s shelter. Giving the women in these shelters access to toiletries of their own gives them a sense of ownership and the opportunity to start fresh. Visit WomensShelters.org—a great resource with shelters across the U.S.

Does your church send out ministry teams in the summer or fill shoeboxes for needy kids during the Christmas season? Small toiletry items are ideal for both. I’ve sent bags of small toiletries with young people to take with them as they spend weeks each summer in third world countries, building schools and helping out at orphanages. The children and workers are thrilled to receive any kind of toiletry item.

I know that my church will take all of the toiletry items I can bring in—that’s how how much they’re needed and appreciated. Makes me wonder if perhaps a church or synagogue in your area would also be as grateful.

Hope that helps!

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How to Make Brown Bagging Better Than Buying Lunch

I know people who try to convince themselves they can buy lunch every day for less than they’d spend if they brought a bagged lunch to work. That kind of flawed thinking could well be the reason those same people complain that they do not make enough money to save any of it. Eating lunch out day after day is expensive. Here, let me do the math: $10 x 5 Days = $50 x 50 weeks = $2,500 per year. And that’s just a quick estimate.

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If you could cut that number in half by bringing your lunch to work, you’d still have $1,250 for your savings account. However, I’m certain that with the right incentive (money in the bank is a great one) you could do even better than that.

But would you? Would you conscientiously transfer $25 or more to your savings account every week to reward your brown bag efforts? Only you can answer that question, but I have every confidence that you would.

The secret for successful brown bagging is twofold: Must be visually appealing and must be delightfully delicious.

1. Invest in a Good Lunch Container. For me, a true brown bag is too flimsy. I want a lunch bag that is insulated, sturdy, leak proof and as attractive as possible. The Freddie and Sebbie Lunch Bag is as practical as it is cute. Made of neoprene, insulated with a zipper close and as practical as it is fun to carry—this bag comes in a variety of colors. For a big family-size lunch, I have this large insulated Cooler Bag, which meets the same criteria. The Everest Cooler Lunch Bag offers a more masculine, but equally practical option. The test of a good lunch container is how often it gets used.

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