Fast food runs, deli detours and a grocery carts loaded with pre-prepared food can drain a food budget faster than a houseful of hungry teenagers. The secret for slashing your family’s food bill is to cook at home. And the way to become confident in the kitchen is to learn a few strategic “trucs” of the trade.

Truc (rhymes with “fluke”) is a French word that means a “trick,” not as in a magic trick or illusion, but rather a shortcut, gimmick, secret or way to do something better, cheaper, easier and faster.

PERFECT RICE.  Sauté 1 cup rice in two tablespoons oil in a sauce pan over medium heat until the kernels are well coated and begin to turn bright white. Add 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, stir and reduce to simmer. Cover and cook for 10 minutes undisturbed. Remove from the heat (do not peek) and wait for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve. Multiplies well, use equal amounts of rice and water.

PERFECT BOILED POTATOES. Say goodby to mushy boiled potatoes that fall apart: Fill a pot with two parts water and one part vinegar. Add a dash of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Drop in the peeled potatoes and gently boil until desired doneness.

PERFECT CUPCAKES. To make rich, moist “gourmet” cupcakes skip the muffin tins and paper liners. Grease and flour heavy ovenproof porcelain coffee cups. Fill with your favorite cake or muffin batter to 2/3 full. Bake in preheated oven at 325 degrees F for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes then invert the cups to pop out the cakes.

PERFECT OMELET PAN. Any skillet can become your perfect omelet pan. The secret is making sure the omelet will not stick. Pour some kosher salt into the skillet and rub vigorously the bottom and sides of the pan with a kitchen towel. The salt acts like an abrasive to put a fine polish on the skillet. Discard the salt and proceed.

TENDER MOIST CHICKEN. When cooking a whole chicken, chicken parts or boneless skinless breasts in liquid (braising, boiling or stewing) make sure it never comes to a full boil, not even for a few moments. Once you see that liquid starting to move, turn the heat down so it remains just below the boiling point. This is the secret to moist and tender chicken every time.

FRESH BASIL. To enjoy “fresh” basil all year long, wash, pat dry between towels and then pick off the unbruised leaves from the stems. Pack them in a jar and cover completely with olive oil. Close the lid tightly and refrigerate. Use the “fresh” basil as needed throughout the year, also the wonderful basil-flavored oil.

QUICK CHILL. Champagne, beer and whites wines are best served very cold, around 43 degrees F. That takes at least an hour in the refrigerator. But you can cut that time to 20 minutes or less: Fill an ice bucket half full with ice cubes. Pour in several cups of cold water and add 4 tablespoons of salt. Plunge the beverage bottle into the ice bucket, adding additional water and ice so the bucket is full. In 10-12 minutes the beverage will be cold, let stand for 20 minutes to reach the ideal 43 degrees. Cheers!

Do you have a great kitchen trick? Share it with us in the comments below.

Planting an edible garden is now trendy—not that being part of a trend is a good reason to start or learn something new. But if it helps you move forward by being part of the “in” crowd, then you really need to plant your own edible garden this year.

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Provided you remain frugal (it is possible to spend a fortune on a garden, thereby nullifying most of the reasons to do it), you’ll save money, for certain. More than that you’ll know exactly what you’re eating and where it came from.

There are myriad ways to get started. You can grow a garden in a black plastic trash bag, on a deck, in a pot or even on a windowsill. You don’t need acreage and “perfect” conditions to get started. You can do it now with what you have, where you are.

Once you get going, here are a collection of great tips to further your success and enjoyment. There’s something soothing and satisfying about getting your hands dirty and watching stuff grow! Speaking of  dirty hands …  Read more

Most families these days assume it takes two incomes to survive. And many would be shocked if they just took the time to figure out the real hourly wage in that second paycheck.

Dear Mary: With two little boys, my husband and I are paying through the roof for daycare. It seems like almost all the money I earn goes to childcare, so I’ve been thinking of quitting my job and staying home with the kids. I’m excited at the thought of spending more time with them, but I also want to be sure my family will be okay financially. Is there an easy way to make sure the decision is right for us? Bethany

Dear Bethany: I think you’re on to something. But before you make any rash decisions, do this: Write down a figure that represents your monthly take-home (net) pay. Now deduct from that all of your work-related costs including daycare, transportation, clothes, lunches, gifts and office pools and anything else you can come up with that would go away if you stay at home. Divide that result by the number of hours you’re away from home to see what your real hourly wage. But wait, there’s more.

Consider all of the hidden expenses you have because you work, like more fast food, take-out and restaurant meals because you’re too tired to cook. Do you hire help for the yard work or housecleaning? If you are home there’s a good chance you can do those jobs and reduce your expenses even further.

You may be shocked to discover it’s actually costing you to hold down a job because you’re paying out more than you earn, while this job is putting you into a higher tax bracket.

Unless you make a whopping big salary, you may be better off financially by being at home with your kids where you can also cook, clean and garden, too.

Dear Mary: My son Jake graduated from college about a year ago. He has a job, but with student loans and a bit of credit-card debt, he is struggling a bit financially. I know with smarter choices he could pull himself out of this; however, Jake just asked his father and me for help. We want to be good parents and provide for him. At the same time, we also think that since he’s an adult, he needs to start taking care of himself. Is there any compromise? Suzanne

Dear Suzanne:  Since he has asked for help, this might be the perfect time to teach as well. Don’t just give him a handout. Help him set up a budget. It’s possible he like so many people has never learned how to manage money.

Because he has come to you asking for help it’s possible he’s open to receiving your guidance as well. He needs to be accountable, but not in a child/parent way. Think of this as more of a client/counselor relationship.

In the same way he would have to create and submit a business plan to get a business loan, have him create a personal finance plan for how he intends to use the money you lend to him, how he intends to manage his income each month and how he plans to pay you back.

It’s time for Jake to get real about his money, and this could be the perfect opportunity you need to teach him valuable lessons. Not sure how or where to start? Pick up a copy of my book, Debt-Proof Living (most libraries have it). I’ll teach you everything Jake needs to know!

Without a doubt, the best thing about living in Colorado is the change of seasons. The folks here live for one spectacular season after another.

In the summer we can’t wait for the cooler weather and colors of autumn. In the fall, we’re just dying for winter so we can pull out the winter wear, skis and snowboards. Once Christmas is packed up for another year, it’s all about the promise of new life as the days grow longer and the weather warms.

Suddenly it’s Spring! My garden is bursting with color. I’m cleaning like a crazy woman and I’m not talking about the house. Around here, winter takes its toll on our cars. It’s nearly impossible to keep a car clean during a Colorado winter.

For months while the days are short, the garage is cold and the driveway unpredictable, I remind myself that when it warms up—when Spring get here—that’s when I’ll clean and spit-shine this car back to showroom elegance.

CLEANING PRODUCTS. I consider the care and maintenance of our vehicles to be an investment in their long and enjoyable lives (we drive a car for 20 years, minimum). That’s why I use products that the professionals use: KevianClean Interior Defense, KevianClean Leather Cleaner and Conditioner, a good professional carpet stain remover, window cleaner and microfiber cloths.   Read more

I’ll admit I used to think frugality was a distasteful lifestyle forced upon the poor. I believed “frugal” was synonymous with never buying new clothes and dumpster diving under the cover of night.

Boy, did I have a lot to learn. And learn I did—and continue to learn—that is the path to building wealth on any income.

I’d say the most fun I’ve had learning the fine art of frugality has been in reading The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko.

Webster’s defines “frugal” as behavior characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources. The opposite is “wasteful,” a lifestyle marked by lavish spending and hyperconsumption. Wealth has nothing to do with how much you earn, but what you do with it and how much you keep. Read more

Years ago I had an editor who told me that I should value highly every letter I receive because each one represents 1,000 readers with the same question or comment. Honestly, I was skeptical because there was no way to prove such a thing. But I never forgot what she said.

This many years later, I’m a believer! How do I measure? By the number of thanks I get after the fact, when I do respond to those readers who take the time to write. It’s like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I needed to know!” or “I was just going to write and ask the same thing.”

A regular, albeit random, feature of this column—EC’s Best Inexpensive—has begun to bring a lot of mail in the form of reader requests for their particular item of interest.

And so for Jeannine, Francine and Brenda—and the 999 others who haven’t asked yet—here are the EC picks for Best Inexpensive hairdryer, electric mixers and clothes steamers.

HAIR DRYER: Conair 1875 Watt with Cord Keeper. This hairdryer has it all and by “all” I mean the things on my particular must-have list: three levels of heat, two speeds, cool shot button, diffuser attachment and retractable cord (awesome). This is a powerful dryer that comes in a choice of two cool colors. Read more

These days, with so many resources available given the proliferation of the Internet, it’s not always easy to know who to trust.

After all, if you can refinance your home mortgage, it makes sense you should be able to do that with your credit-card debt and auto loan too, right? Well, yes and no.

Dear Mary: With your guidance, I have successfully refinanced my credit-card debt with a P2P (peer-to-peer) loan from Prosper. I’m still surprised by how easy that was.

I have three credit-card accounts that totaled $7,523. The minute the Prosper loan proceeds hit my bank account I went online and paid each of these accounts to $0.

Now I have these three credit-card accounts at $0 balance, plus a new Prosper installment loan. I have two questions: 1) How will this affect my FICO Score, which was 720 when I applied to Prosper and  2) Should I close the credit-card accounts? Jonathan

Dear Jonathan: This move could actually improve your credit score. Because you have $0 balances on your credit-card accounts, your current “revolving utilization rate” is at 0 percent which in credit-score talk is perfect. That means you are utilizing none of the credit limits on those open-ended credit accounts. That should boost your FICO score because 30 percent of your score is based on your revolving utilization rate. The lower your rate the more points you get in that category.  Read more

There exist all kinds of methods for cleaning glass coffee carafes—most of them brought to us by hard working, super experienced restaurant servers. Who better to know how to get things done fast and efficiently?

I thought I’d heard every method, too—that is until I heard from Laurie. I’ll be the first to say she’s right on. I love it—and would add caution that you make sure you don’t  splash bleach on that cute apron or beautiful kitchen towels. That’s the challenge with bleach in the kitchen.

SUPER CLEAN. After years of scouring, scrubbing and scratching hundreds of coffee carafés, I have discovered an absolutely miraculous cleaning method that you will not believe. Fill coffee carafé a few inches from the top with water. Add 1/4 cup liquid chlorine bleach. Add exactly 2 drops of blue Dawn (no more, no less). Top it off with water so it’s all the way t the top. Do not scrub. Within 10 minutes your pot will be sparkling—like new. Rinse well with clear water. This would have saved me lots and lots of time, many pounds of salt, bushels of ice cubes and endless elbow grease if I had come across it sooner. Laurie Read more