Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sushi bento

I made sushi for dinner last night and decided to see if I could get it to "keep" overnight for lunches today. After I made each roll I wrapped it tightly in plastic wrap; this morning I took them out, sliced them (thin for Nate) and put some soy sauce on the side. They were cold but the rice was still tender; I'll quiz Stewart about how it tastes after it's had a chance to come to room temperature by lunchtime.


Snack: "Mommy Mix" (aka: a bunch of things from the snack drawer mixed together)
Lunch: sushi (one roll with veggie burger & cucumber inside and one roll with veggie hotdog and cucumber inside), snap peas, M&Ms.
Snack: cucumber slices and cherries


Lunch: Avocado & cucumber sushi, cherries, snap peas, and cucumber slices.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Quickie Bento

Tons to do tonight; quick post on tomorrow's Bentos. Nate's camp goes on field trips on Mondays so I have to pack in disposable gear.


Snack: carrots & snap peas
Lunch: veggie burger wrap w/peanut sauce, mandarin orange, cucumber slices, M&Ms
Snack: chex mix with raw almonds mixed in


Lunch: Veggie burger wrap with peanut sauce, avocado, and lettuce. Sugar snaps, carrots, cucumber slices, raw almonds, letter cookies, and M&Ms. Yum!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I love Trader Joes

This is the first in a series called "Why I love Trader Joes more than just about anything." I'll randomly feature two items when the mood strikes.

Today's first fabulous item is the Melange a Trois:

This item is a one-pound bag of frozen bell pepper strips. It costs $1.69, which is less than you'd pay for the whole peppers at the grocery store. They don't cheap out and use mostly green peppers which I appreciate. It's frozen, so you can whip it out anytime and add it to whatever you're cooking. I use it with pierogies, enchiladas, in soups, stir-fries, and anywhere else I can stuff them. For you meat-eaters I could see them in ground beef for tacos or hamburger helper, or sauteed with veggies over chicken. Heck, add them to whatever you want - it's $1.69 for the bag! Wish they were organic, but you can't have everything. I bought six bags today.

Our next featured item is a bag of raw almonds:

It's a whole pound of raw almonds for $4.49. So healthy for the kids, easy for snacks, travels well...need I say more?

So that's today's installment of "Why Trader Joes rocks and I love it so much." Stay tuned to see what's next!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Two days of Bento plus some Nate

Things have been a little crazy around here; I took Nate to Sesame Place yesterday which threw off our whole schedule.

Here's the Bentos from Wednesday (Stewart was conveniently too busy to eat it that day so he used it yesterday while we were at Sesame Place):


Snack: Raw almonds, pretzels, veggie sticks
Lunch: veggie hotdog rollup, snap peas, cherries, pole beans, mandarin oranges, M&Ms
Snack: pretzels filled with PB, dried apricots, dried cranberries


Lunch: Salad with lettuce from the garden, mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, edamame, blueberries, and raw almonds. On the side are cherries, a few dried apricots, M&Ms, and salad dressing.

Here's a picture from Sesame Place just for fun:

And here's the Bento I sent off with Nate this morning. Stewart took the day off (it's our anniversary) so we'll eat together at home.

Snack: raw almonds, pretzels, letter cookies, and veggie sticks
Lunch: pasta with indian-spinach sauce, carrots, and tomatoes cooked in. Snap peas, mandarin orange, and blueberries on the side. I forgot the M&Ms - we'll see how that goes!
Snack: cherries, dried apricots, and dried cranberries

Now I"m off to pack for a weekend away without the boys. If you were planning on calling, don't - I'll be sleeping for the next 48 hours.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Garden update!

It's been a while since I talked about the garden, huh? I've been taking some photos but just haven't figured out a way to tie the whole post together so I think I'll just put the photos out there and let them speak for themselves.

Everything has been going great except that I have early blight on the tomatoes. The little guys have been ripening; I hope to get at least some big ones ripened before the plants die off. According to what I've read I'll just have to take a break from tomatoes for 2-3 years. Last year that would have really upset me but now that I've grown so many other vegetables I feel good about all of the other things I can grow.


Green beans! Never grown those before. These were the bush beans; the pole beans haven't beaned yet.

Tomatoes! The little guys are ripening; no action on the big guys yet.

Yesterday's harvest:

Lettuce in the "ground":

Lettuce in the bowl just before it became dinner:

Progression shots:

May 21st:

May 26th:

June 12th:

June 21st:

Today's moment of Bento

Just didn't have the energy to do Stewart's today so he's left to fend for himself on the mean streets of DC.

Since Nate can't take $10 and go get himself a sandwich and some chips, I obviously made his lunch:

Snack 1: Raw almonds, veggie sticks, pretzels
Snack 2: apple slices and edamame (I just love how they look together!)
Lunch: fake-chicken patty in ww wrap, cucumber slices, mandarin, carrots, green beans from the garden, and the obvious pack of M&Ms

Wish I fed myself the way I feed my kids!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Healthy is as healthy does

I get a lot of e-mails about the healthy lunches, and it's true that they are. I'm pretty conscious about what the kids eat but I try not to take it too far. It makes me feel good to be taking care of them in this way, and I hope I'm laying a good foundation for them to eat well and to enjoy all sorts of flavors and dishes.

The key to the healthy meals, for me, is prepping the food ahead of when I need them. In my fridge right now is a big bowl of washed cherries, another of washed blueberries, and yet another of cubed watermelon. I have sandwich bags with chopped celery and sliced cucumbers and cooked shelled edamame. All of the snacks and dried fruits are in zip-lock bags so I can grab them, serve them, and put them away faster.

One key strategy is washing the produce as soon as I unpack it. When I'm putting the groceries away I'll just leave the apples, celery, peppers, and the rest on the counter. Then as I go about my business in the kitchen I can see what I need to wash, chop, and prep before putting it away. The celery gets chopped into short lengths, washed, and bagged. Apples are washed and de-stickered (those things are annoying!). Blueberries are washed and put into a bowl - I pad the bowl with a few paper towels to keep the berries on the bottom from going bad too quickly.

I do a lot of the prep work while I'm already in the kitchen so I don't have to spend a lot of extra time on this kind of stuff. If I'm already cooking dinner I'll throw an extra pot of water on to boil and cook a bag of edamame to keep on-hand. If I'm chopping onions for dinner I'll slice up a cucumber and bag it for snacks. Any time I open a new bag of almonds or raisins or veggie sticks I'll pour the whole thing into a zip-lock bag and store it that way.

The other easy way to get this kind of work done is working when I'm on the phone. My friend Kara called a few nights ago and while we gossipped I chopped up and entire watermelon and stored it in two bowls in the fridge. The boys and I have been enjoying the heck out of that watermelon ever since.

Today we decided to meet up with my folks and go watch my sister play softball. I was able to throw together snacks in about 10 minutes:

So that's all good and healthy and proper, right? But...

My general thinking is that if 2/3 of what they eat is healthy then I'm not going to sweat the rest. It really frees me up when they grab cookies at a party or eat nothing but doritos at our neighbor's house. In fact last night we were hanging around and I got a yen from my childhood: Nate and I hit the grocery store and got all the fixings for ice-cream sundaes and that was dinner for them last night. Big scoops of ice cream, bananas, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and all the sprinkles Nate could sprinkle. It was a fun night.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lunch blog

On Mondays Nate's camp takes field trips so we have to pack lunches in disposable containers. I wasn't sure what would hold up so I went with an easy lunch:

Snack: apple slices and shelled edamame
Snack: pretzels and raw almonds
Lunch: veggie hotdog rollup and a bag of cherries

I didn't cook much this weekend so I didn't have an obvious main course for Stewart's lunch. I pulled this out of my hat and I've got to admit I'm pretty proud of it:

Lunch: Two whole-wheat tortillas wrapped in wax paper; I included a bunch of hummus and cucumber slices so he can make two wraps. Apple slices, shelled edamame, cherries, and a fun-pack of M&Ms tucked in.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday's bento!

So I opened up Nate's lunchbox yesterday to clean it out and this is what I found:

For a minute I seriously wondered if I'd forgotten to actually put his lunch in there. There's honestly not a crumb left. That's a great feeling!

Here's what they went off with today:


Snack 1: pretzels and raw almonds
Snack 2: blueberries, sugar snaps, and a mandarin orange
Lunch: veggie burger wrap, carrots, apple slices, and one square of dark chocolate


Lunch: brown rice, tofu/chickpea curry, sugar snaps, mandarin orange, and 2 squares of dark chocolate

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Day 4!

Didn't post this last night because I didn't finish until this morning. Poor Jack has been so sick the last two nights and Stewart and I have gotten very little sleep. He's napping peacefully now - thank goodness for Motrin!


Snack 1: dried apricots, raisins, and fresh (from frozen) edamame
Snack 2: veggie sticks (Trader Joe's) and pretzels filled with peanut butter (also TJs)
Lunch: veggie hot-dog wrap, sugar snaps, tiny mandarin orange, cucumber slices, and the ubiquitous M&Ms


Lunch: pizza-flavored veggie burger wraps (with tomato sauce for dipping / spreading), blueberries, mandarin orange, and veggies with hummus for dipping. M&Ms hidden under the blueberries.

So far Stewart's only comment about today's lunch is to [pretend] whine that I didn't peel his orange like I did yesterday. :-)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Day 3!

Still trucking along! I can see a pattern emerging with Nate's two snacks. Those cute little dividers to keep things separated can't hold up to a preschooler flinging his lunchbox all about. Thus, one "wet" snack and one "dry" snack and no soggy yuckiness to clean up at the end of the day.


Snack 1: Pretzels and "letter" cookies (from Trader Joe's)
Snack 2: Fruitabu fruit roll-up, edamame, tiny mandarin orange
Lunch: Last of the pasta salad from yesterday, sugar snaps, carrots, and hidden pack of M&Ms


Lunch: Pierogies (from tonight's dinner - sauteed with peppers and onions and drizzled with "crack" dip (thusly called because it's horribly addictive salad dressing from Giant)), edamame, tiny mandarin orange, letter cookies, and a hidden pack of M&Ms.

Now it's time for an early turn-in and a less-tired Mama tomorrow.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day 2!

Bentos were a big hit today - here are the ones for tomorrow:

I made some whole wheat noodles to go along with tonight's dinner; I used the rest to work out a yummy lunch using my favorite peanut noodle recipe.


Snack 1: tiny mandarin orange, apple slices, shelled edamame
Snack 2: chex mix (free from Target!) with raw almonds mixed in
Lunch: peanut noodles with corn and peas mixed in (and a tiny square of chocolate (free from Target!) hidden underneath)


Lunch: peanut noodles with corn and peas mixed in, cucumber slices, edamame, and two squares of chocolate (free from Target!)


Snack: cucumber slices, mandarin oranges, apple slices, and shelled edamame
Lunch: peanut noodles

Today went so smoothly and easily due to the prep-work ahead of time; I just hope I can keep it up! It feels so relaxing to know how much is already taken care of for tomorrow.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

First day!

Nate starts camp tomorrow for the first time, and he'll be going all-day for the first time. I admit these past two weeks, with no school and no camp yet, have been a little rough but we've also gotten a lot closer - I'm going to miss him! I also admit that I'm looking forward to it a lot. I have all sorts of fantasies about how much I'll get done during the day. Probably I'll just shop online for more Bento boxes, but at least I'll do it without feeling guilty that I'm neglecting him by not building the 173rd Lego tower of the day with him.

I have to send him, each day, with two snacks and a lunch. I already have the Lock & Locks for the food and yesterday I picked him up two lunchboxes at Target and let him choose. One was super-cute and non-character with a neat thermos attached. The other was a Transformers one. Guess which one he picked? Yup, Transformers. I hate the character thing, but I saw it and I knew he'd love it and I had to let him make the choice. That's what the first day of camp is all about, right?

Here's what I packed for his big first day:

Snack 1: cucumber/hummus sandwiches and pretzels filled with peanut butter
Snack 2: raw almonds, dried cranberries, and veggie sticks (Trader Joes)
Lunch: Veggie hotdog wrap, mandarins, sugar snap peas, carrots, and a little fun-pack of M&Ms hidden underneath.

As long as I'm packing Nate's lunch I figured I'd start packing Stewart's lunch:

Salad (with lettuce from the garden!) with mandarins, dried cranberries, and avocado. Cucumber/hummus sandwiches and carrots, and a fun-pack of M&Ms hidden under the dressing.

And as long as I had everything out, I figured I'd prep Jack's snack and lunch to make my day even smoother tomorrow:

Snack: veggie sticks, pretzels filled with peanut butter, cucumber slices
Lunch: veggie hotdog chunks, mandarins, avocado slices, dried cranberries, and raw almonds

It took me about 30 minutes to put these all together. I'm going to try to use the same ingredients for the lunches, even if the end product isn't the same (for example, the foods from the kids snacks were the toppings for Stewart's salad.) I'll work leftovers in as much as I can, though I haven't been cooking at night much these days (we scrounge a lot).

Do you guys like seeing these? Should I try to keep up the bento posting?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

My biggest and best money-earning tip

A lot of frugal blogs, including this one, focus on all of the small ways to earn and save money. Most of the time, that's our best way to do it and for a lot of people it's the only way

But my biggest money-earning tip is this one: invest in real estate. Beg, borrow, steal - just get yourself in real estate. Think this is a bad time? It's not. There is no bad time, even when prices are sky-high. But right now when interest rates are low and housing prices are down is the best time in 10 years.

The easiest first step is to buy your own home. When you're buying a personal residence, you qualify for lower interest rates and down payments, and often there are subsidies for first-time buyers. Interest rates are going up right now but they're still very low, historically, and there many people can still qualify for mortgages. Fair mortgages that they can afford.

We have been very lucky in this area, and we've also worked hard. Stewart bought the home we live in before we started dating and I moved in here in 2003. He had the foresight to anticipate what this neighborhood was capable of and the house now has plenty of equity in it.

In 2003 we tapped that equity with an equity line and used it as the down payment to buy a house right across the street - we refinished it and now rent it to a great group of "kids" (they're in their 20's but seem like kids to me!) In 2003 they were still giving out equity lines on investment properties, so we got one and used that as the down payment on another investment property a mile away. We happily rent it to another great set of "kids."

My rule of thumb, based on the reading and research I've done on real-estate investing, is that I need to be able to charge in rent my total expenses plus 25%: so if my total expenses are $2,000, I need to be able to charge around $2,400 in rents. We do this and more on the two properties that we already own.

Each month I am able to pay the mortgages plus an extra 10% to help pay the mortgage off sooner. I'm also able to send about $1,000 to the equity lines to help bring those balances down. The balances are coming down slowly, but they're coming down. If there is a repair needed I break even that month, but I never go into the red. In about 13 years the equity lines will be paid off and in about 20 the mortgages will be paid. We will own those two homes free-and-clear and someone else will have paid every cent of it.

We intended to buy another but prices went up past the point I was comfortable with. There was no way to even pay expenses, let alone allow for any overage to protect us when the house needs repairs. So we waited, and waited, and waited.

About 8 months ago I decided to test the waters and started looking at properties online. It looked promising, so we found a new agent and I started looking. A month ago I did a blitz-weekend of property hunting and found 8 that looked like they might work. I ran the numbers, analyzed everything, and Stewart and I picked the two most promising out of the bunch. Went back for one more look and put an offer in that very day; we found out the next day that we got the house we bid on. We're currently under contract and on July 17th, it will be ours.

It's the crown jewel of our "portfolio." Two units - a four bedroom upstairs and a separately-metered two-bedroom downstairs. New kitchens, new bathrooms, new carpets, refinished hardwood floors. Central air, front porch, back deck, four parking spaces in the back. Plus it's one block from the Metro, four from Safeway, and about 8 from the new development in Columbia Heights. It's a gem.

Original woodwork:

Master suite:

Main unit kitchen:

Front porch:

Main floor:

We were able to use the balances on the two equity lines to put down the down payment. We did have to increase the equity line on our primary residence to do it, but we made it by a hair.

The market will fluctuate, housing prices will fluctuate - just buy a good house with good features in a good location and a good price. If you know that, no matter what, you can pay the mortgage with the rent you take in then it's worth doing. In 30 years the house will be paid off on someone else's dime. If the house is worth more, that's icing on the cake. If it's worth less, drat. Doesn't matter - you didn't buy it. It's a free house, and that's worth a whole heck of a lot.

For reading, I really recommend anything by Robert Shemin. His focus is on making money by being a good guy - a good landlord, an honest person who treats tenants well. I've implemented many of his techniques and have had a wonderful 6 years as a landlord.

I'm happy to answer any questions you have about this kind of investing. It's worth it, I promise!