Best Location for Potato Storage

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I don’t really have a mail bag but it would be fun if I did. What I do have is a file named EC_Mailbag. That’s where I save all of the questions and letters that you, my dear readers, send to me. I just don’t have the time to respond personally so I love it when once each week I get to respond to your questions here.

Dear Mary: I just read your past column on keeping produce fresh longer. You said to not refrigerate potatoes. Why not? I have been doing this for several years. Dee H.

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Dear Dee: When potatoes are stored below 40ºF the starch in them turns to sugar. This affects the taste and you will also notice that refrigerated potatoes turn an ugly brownish color when cooked. The ideal storage conditions for potatoes are a dark, cool, well-ventilated place like the lowest shelf in a pantry. Too much light makes potatoes turn green. If that happens or if they spout, you can still use them. Just cut off the green spots and the sprouts before you cook them. 

Next time you cruise the produce section at the supermarket notice how the potatoes are handled: Never refrigerated and kept perfectly dry.

Little Ways to Save Big

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Wash it yourself. Don’t assume you have to send certain items to the dry cleaner—it pays to look at the label. According to Procter & Gamble Global Fabric Care, 65 percent of dry-cleaned clothes are actually machine-washable. Unless the label says “Dry Clean Only,” follow the care directions listed. If you wash just two items you’d normally dry-clean, you’ll save at least $10 a month.

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Holding on to your hard-earned money is a lot tougher these days. Just when it looks like the economy is recovering, it takes another hit from rising prices. Add to that personal financial emergencies and fewer work hours on the homefront. All you can think about is how to shore up your cash. Embrace these simple changes and you’ll just might see a boost in your bank account.

Fabulous Household Cleaners You Can Make Yourself

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It pretty much kills me to spend money to pay for things I know I can make myself. Take cleaning products for example.  Knowing I can make specific cleaners for pennies that costs dollars at the store just makes me happy. It’s a no-brainer. In the past I’ve shared lots of my recipes with you Want to know how to do that? Here are three handy recipes to help you get started saving all that money you used to spend on household cleaners.

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Granite Cleaner. Countertops made from granite, marble and stone are tricky because these materials are porous and stain easily. You never want to clean them with anything  acidic, which means vinegar and lemon juice are both out. Here is a homemade granite cleaner that will not stain nor is it acidic. It works like a champ to clean and shine these natural counters. 

Pour 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol into a 16-oz. spray bottle. Add 3 drops (only 3) Dawn liquid dishwashing detergent, 5 to 10 drop essential oil (this is optional, but will add a nice fragrance) plus enough water to fill the bottle. Apply the spray top and shake to mix. You  can use this cleaner to clean and shine your appliances as well.

Cheapskate, Who Me?

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Some people think the word cheapskate is an insult. Not me. I enjoy being called a cheapskate. It reminds me that I’m not what I used to be: a credit-card junkie. There was a time I used plastic to fill the gap between my pathetic income and the life I so richly deserved. 

When my six-figure bridge collapsed, (yes, you can take that to mean more than $100,000 in non-mortgage debt) I had two choices: change my ways or lose everything. Knowing I wouldn’t do well with the latter, I opted for change. I could fill several books with all that happened and what I’ve learned (wait! I have), but I’ll cut to the chase. We didn’t go bankrupt, we paid back every penny and now I live to tell. Yeah, you can call me a cheapskate any day and I’ll take it as a compliment.

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So, you may be thinking, how did she do that?! I stopped spending every penny I had and all we hoped to have. Bottom line: I learned how to live on less than our income. A lot less. The steps are simple:

Rein in your brain. You have to stop believing you are entitled to have it all now and then pay, and pay, and pay for it later. The truth is you can’t have it all, but you can have enough. 

Make Your Own Spreadable Butter

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You’ve seen the little tubs of “spreadable butter” in the dairy case of your supermarket. In fact you may purchase them regularly because they’re just so convenient. If you watch your prices you know the typical spreadable could almost be considered a luxury item. One 8-ounce tub is the equivalent of two sticks of butter.

Most spreadables are part real butter, part canola oil. Others have olive oil or some kind of an oil blend. What all of these spreadables have in common is that they remain perfectly soft, even while refrigerated. 

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Today I want to tell you how you can make your own spreadable butter with canola oil for half the price.

Depending on the brand, spreadable butter runs from from about $.30 for store brands to $.50 for name brands, per ounce. Curiously, butter costs just about the same per ounce ($.30 to $.50) unless you buy it in bulk at Sam’s or Costco, while canola oil comes in as low as $.08 an ounce.

Groceries and the Dating Game

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Dear Mary: Can you clarify expiration dates on food products? When it says “Sell By 8/01/14″ does that mean it has to be used or just sold by that date? Others show a date of say 2/01/16 on canned or packaged goods. Does that mean you need to use it by this date or what? Some canned or packaged products don’t seem to have any date that I can find. Why is that? I’m so confused! Bob D.

Dear Bob: The answer, which I can promise you will be much longer than your question, may surprise you. We’re all confused! There is no standardization in the industry. Confusing food date labels lead to staggering food waste in America.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates product dating only on infant formula and baby food. Everything else is voluntary. While there is no standardization, the food industry generally follows certain guidelines suggested by the FDA, the operative word being “generally.”

Phrases like “Best Before,” “Better if Used Before,” or “Best if Used By” tell you how long the product will retain its best flavor and highest quality. They are found on products like baked goods, cereals, snacks and some canned foods. The food is still safe to eat after this date, but may have changed somewhat in taste or texture. 

The “Sell By” date is usually found on highly perishable foods like meat, milk and bread. This date is supposed to guide the way products are rotated on store shelves and allows time for the product to be stored and used at home. The product is still safe and wholesome past this date. For example, milk will usually be good for at least a week beyond its “sell by” date if properly refrigerated. 

Meat that has arrived at its “sell by” date should be either consumed or frozen within 24 hours. You can also extend the useful life of milk and baked goods by freezing within a day or so of “sell by” date. 

“Expiration,” “Use By,” or “Use Before” are phrases that appear on yogurt, eggs and other foods that require refrigeration. Other dating terms are guidelines, but this one means what it says. If you haven’t used the product by this date, toss it out. 

“Guaranteed fresh.” This date is often used for perishable baked goods. Beyond this date, freshness is no longer guaranteed although the product may still be edible.

Some products bear a “pack date,” indicating when it was packaged, although this date is often encrypted so that only manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers can read it. The pack date on some products, such as eggs, is shown by a Julian date (1 through 365), January 1 is number 1, and December 31 is number 365. In other coding, letters A through M (omitting the letter I) are often assigned to the months, with A being January and M being December, plus a numeric day, either preceded or followed by the numeric year. 

The point in all of this is that the fresher your food, the better it is. And processors want to assure customers that their products will remain at peak quality for certain periods of time. Tip: In a properly stocked store, the freshest items will be at the back of the shelf or underneath older items. 

For more information on food storage and safety issues, go to www.fda.gov and search “food storage.”

Do-it-Yourself Pet Meds and More Reader Tips

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I love to read my mail because so much of it contains great ideas and tips from my awesome EC readers. Take a look at this small sampling and tell me if this just doesn’t make you happy, too!

DIY pet meds. Trips to the veterinarian for puppy and booster shots can be very expensive. Most reliable pet stores and grooming shops sell the medications and offer instructions so you can inject your pets at home. It is easy and cheap. You can find instructional videos online that will teach you exactly how to inject your pet. Veterinarians in my area charge from $25 to $45 for each injection. The same shots from the same manufacturers purchased from grooming shops or pet stores can be more like $5 to $10 each. It is legal in most states to administer these medications to your pet. Be sure to check yours. Tracey H.

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Travel light and save. It may sound like mission impossible but if you learn to travel light with only your carry-on you will save a tremendous amount of time and money. You can ride the bus instead of hiring a cab. You won’t have to tip porters to carry all your suitcases. And if your flight is overbooked, you can volunteer to get bumped (you’ll get a voucher for a free ticket), and not worry about whether you will ever catch up with your checked luggage. Joe D.

Smart Saving Tastes Like Chicken

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With the price of beef skyrocketing, now more than ever, chicken is is becoming the backbone of the frugal kitchen. And why not? Chicken is much less expensive than beef or pork, and useful down to the bones. 

Don’t pay full-price. Chicken is always on sale somewhere. If you don’t want to store-hop, you can always find some cut of meat, fish and poultry on sale in your favorite market. Eat what’s on sale and if it’s a loss-leader (that means priced dirt-cheap to entice people through the door), stock up for the coming weeks.

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Buy whole chickens. The most frugal way to use chickens is to buy them whole and cut them up yourself. You’ll not only save money, but chicken tastes much better when cooked with the skin and bones. A whole, organic bird usually costs less per pound than precut, skinned and boned parts–and it tastes so much better. It is not difficult to cut up a chicken once you understand the five simple steps. Here is a video tutorial, or if you prefer, written instructions with pictures.