$5 Dinners

You’ve seen the awesome website, $5 Dinners, right? With complete meals coming in at under $5 for a family of four, the website has garnered much attention, and its writer has published an equally awesome book, called (not surprisingly) $5 Dinner Mom’s Cookbook!

If you are new to couponing and shopping with a tight food budget, you’ll find the first section of this book to be a great primer. It gives a number of strategies  and explains in easy to understand terms how to maximize your budget and spend as little as possible without sacrificing your family’s health by serving junk food. I am really enjoying the book so far, and am excited to try a few of the recipes.

This week’s menu includes 5 of the $5 meals from the book.

1. Maple chicken, brown rice, asparagus
2. BBQ Lentils, brown rice, broccoli
3. Broccoli tuna casserole, spinach salad
4. Lentil (and beef) meatloaf, mashed potatoes, carrots
5. Curried split peas, brown rice, garlicky green beans

I’m also making bean burritos and broccoli slaw, testing refried beans and flour tortillas for two weeks’ worth of Scratch vs. Store Bought articles.

Also, if you’re planning your garden, check out $5 Dinner’s free gardening planner printables.


Last week, I used the Mark Bittman cookbook “How to Cook Everything” and it was an easy to follow cookbook with tasty meals. I particularly liked the stir-fried chicken and spinach, and the meatloaf with spinach. I’ve been in a meatloaf mood lately, as you can see by its presence in both last week and this week’s menus!

Coming this week:

* “After” pictures of the cleared out entry cabinet
* Scratch vs. Store Bought: Refried Beans
* More money making and saving tips
* An EXCITING announcement and BIG change at the end of the week!

Check out more menus at Menu Plan Monday.


My husband makes really good stove-top popcorn. He started with the recipe from Joy of Cooking and adapted until he found the measurements and methods that work perfectly for him. Could a bag from the microwave rival it? We set out to test the two and here are our results.

The Recipe

Stove-Popped Kettle Corn*
Yields 6 servings

3/4 c. popcorn kernels ($.36)
1 T oil ($.03)
1 T butter ($.06)
2 T sugar ($.01)
1/4 t salt

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in an even layer on the bottom of a large stock pot with a lid. Add 3 kernels as testers; when they pop, pull them out and add the rest of the popcorn.

Put on the lid, shake the kernels around to get an even layer on the bottom of the pan, and leave them alone until the popping slows to about 2 seconds between pops. Any more than 3 seconds between pops and you could have burnt popcorn.

Pull the pot off the heat and add the butter. Stir to melt and coat the popped corn. Sprinkle sugar and salt over the top and stir well to combine. Serve.

*The sugar won’t crisp onto the popcorn like in a big kettle, but there is a nice sweetness.

The Cost Breakdown:

Microwave Kettle Corn was on sale for $2.00 for 3 bags, with about three  2 Tbsp servings per bag. That works out to $.26 per serving; however, we lost 1 Tbsp to unpopped kernels in one bag, bringing the servings down to 2.5 and cost up to $.32 per serving.

Our home made version is just $.08 per serving, using real butter. (Mmm, butter…) We lost 7 kernels out of a 6 serving batch.

The Taste Test:

Side A is home made. Side B is from a microwave bag. Which looks more appealing to you?

We are biased testers, I’ll tell you upfront! Home made won in a landslide. It has a real butter flavor (mmm, butter…) and a nice balance of sweet and salty. The kernels have a fresh flavor that is lacking in the microwave counterpart, and a fully popped kernel that has a toothsome quality we enjoy.

Taste tester 1 gave it an A-. Taste tester 2 gave it a B+. Taste tester 3 gave it a thumbs up, as he doesn’t quite understand grades yet. (He is 4.)

The microwave popcorn had a strange chemical after taste, like the artificial sweetener aftertaste of diet soda, and lacked the real butter flavor. It was crisp at the outset, but didn’t have quite as hearty a crunch and got a little mushy while chewing it. That may have to do with corn variety.

Taste tester 1 gave it a C+. Taste tester 2 gave it a D. Taste tester 3 gave it a thumbs in the middle, saying, “It needs butter.” (Taste tester 3 is clearly my child!)

The Time Factor:

The microwave popcorn took 3 1/2 minutes in our microwave. Our home made version took about 12 minutes, with most of that time waiting for the pot to come up to temperature.


I’ve heard rumors that microwave popcorn can lead to cancer, but my Googling leads me to ingredients not present in my popcorn. Apparently, though, the butter flavor will kill you. (So will real butter, according to different experts, so it’s a give and take. I’m taking real butter, thankyouverymuch.)

Microwave Kettle Corn: Popcorn, Palm Oil, Salt, Natural and Artificial Flavor (Milk), Sucralose, Vitamin E (D-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate) to Preserve Freshness.

Calories: 130
Fat: 5 g
Sodium: 180 mg
Carbohydrates: 18 g
Fiber: 4 g
Protein: 3 g

Home made: Popcorn, sugar, oil, butter, salt

Calories: 159
Fat: 5 g
Sodium: 112 mg
Carbohydrates: 25 g
Fiber: 5 g
Protein: 3 g

Other Considerations:

Lost corn – side A is home made, and side B is microwave.
Keep in mind that we did a double batch of side A.

Scratch vs. Storebought winner:

If it’s not obvious, we love the home made popcorn! I don’t usually buy microwave stuff and I’m not about to start.


Next time on Scratch vs. Store Bought: Refried beans. I’m open to suggestions of what to test after that!

I’m sharing this post with the folks over at Frugal Friday.

So there is good news, there is bad news,  and there is a good deal on a movie and frozen food, in that order!

  • Deposits:

I am depositing $119.50 into the e-fund! Woohoo!
$1 found on the ground at Costco
$3 rebate from Rite Aid$115.50 from mystery shop payments

My current savings total is $946.14. Does anyone know of a bank that I can deposit straight from Paypal?

  • Deductions:

I had to replace my car’s tires and that knocked out  $340.00. Ouch! I shopped around and found that Costco had the best price, but I still had a bit of sticker shock . I’m glad that I had the cash available so I didn’t have to drive on unsafe tires or take on debt to get them replaced, and I’m pretty sure the emergency fund is there to cover just this type of unexpected expense, but it stung a little using it.

  • Deals

This is not normally a deals blog, but occasionally find a money making deal that is worth sharing. Starting today, there is a money making deal at Safeway that I’m taking advantage of and wanted to share.

a. Get the DVD of The Princess and The Frog for $.99, or the BluRay/DVD combo for $6.99 with the deal outlined here.

b. At Safeway, you get $10 in Kohl’s Rewards for every $50 you spend. The Kohl’s Rewards are an awesome reason to spend a little extra on pantry staples that don’t frequently go on loss-leader sales, such as spices. *Edited – the movie deal didn’t work at my Safeway.

c. Combine the  Kohl’s deal with the frozen foods deal running all month and spend $25 on frozen foods. (Stock up on frozen veggies!) You’ll get a $10 catalina coupon toward your next purchase.

Edited to add:

I combined deals to get 70% off of my grocery trip today, stocking up on spices, vinegar, oil, frozen veggies and fish, and items for my Scratch vs. Store Bought posts. I also have $40 for Kohl’s and $20 for frozen foods. Yippee!

I went to Target for the BluRay/DVD combo, and it’s going into Sweet Pea’s Christmas gift. I also got Toy Story Legos for $15 for Peanut’s Christmas gift using a $5 off coupon at Target, more Hanes underwear for Peanut (in yesterday’s comments) and 2 boxes of character Band-Aids for $.32 each with coupons. (I needed the Band-Aids for the movie rebate, and they’ll make a nice stocking stuffer. What is it with kids and Band-Aids? Mine love them! And since we don’t get a whole lot of character stuff, they’re a novelty.)


So that’s the update! Plenty of saving and some unexpected spending which reminds me why I’m saving in the first place.

My kids are well dressed, nearly for free. I have tried a variety of methods  and seem to have stumbled upon one that works well for me. Here’s how I do it.

1. Plan ahead. Shop ahead.

I make a list of what each kid will need in each of the next few sizes and keep that list in my purse. Sweet Pea is currently in size 18 months, but I have nearly a full 2T wardrobe ready in the wings, which saves me from having to buy clothes at full price and gives me time to be picky about getting cute stuff on the cheap. As I shop, I note what I got, so I can see at a glance where there are gaps. I also plan each kid’s wardrobe around a few colors and try to shop for pieces that will mix and match.

Here’s the table I use to determine how much of each type of garment to buy. I got the amounts from a website for what foster kids need, and added to give a well rounded wardrobe consistent with our climate (California, no snow) and once-a-week laundering. Peanut is 4 years old, wearing 4 T currently, so I’m working on  5T and 6T acquisition. The one I keep in my purse has space in the notes to write out the color/pattern/image on shirts so I remember what’s in the closet.

Here’s his list:

BOY – 5 T Needed Purchased Notes
Underpants 10
Undershirts 10

Socks 10
Pajamas – light 3
Pajamas – heavy 3
Dressy outfits 2
Everyday shirts – short sleeve 10
Everyday shirts – long sleeve 10
Shorts 10
Pants 10
Sweaters/Sweatshirts 5
Light jacket 1
Heavy jacket 1
Swim suit 1
Winter hat 1
Summer hat 1
Rain coat 1
Dressy shoes 1
Sneakers 1
Sandals 1
Slippers 1

Sweet Pea has a nearly complete 2T wardrobe, so I shouldn’t need much for her right away.  I always put bike shorts or leggings under everyday dresses and skirts, so I list them together. Here’s her list:

Girl – 2T Needed Purchased Notes
Underpants 10
Socks 10
Pajamas – light 3
Pajamas – heavy 3
Dressy outfits 2
Everyday shirts – short sleeve 6
Everyday shirts – long sleeve 6
Shorts 4
Skirts & bike shorts 2
Pants/Jeans 6
Dresses & leggings – summer 4
Dresses & leggings – winter 4
Sweaters 5
Light jacket 1
Heavy jacket 1
Swim suit 1
Winter hat 1
Summer hat 1
Rain coat 1
Dressy shoes 1
Sneakers 1
Sandals 1
Slippers 1

My kids have been consistent in sizing, so it’s easy for me to determine what size they’ll need. I have a hard time gauging shoe sizes ahead, though, so I tend to stick with closed-toe shoes that can go year round. Sweet Pea is a lover of “cute” clothes and already a shoe-loving girl (she doesn’t get that from me) so I anticipate that we’ll have more need for shoe columns as she has more of a say in things!

Generally my list gives about a week’s wardrobe plus a few spares for spills or accidents. Also, I hang clothes in outfits rather than folding individually, so while we could get away with fewer pants than shirts, it is just easier for me to have equal numbers. I buy 10 pairs of the same socks per kid as well, so every sock matches every other sock. No more sock hunts! (I do this for Mr. Penny and myself as well; we actually share everyday short socks.)

This picture is from last year, when I instituted the one-hanger-per-outfit rule. A top, bottom, and underwear for Peanut are all on the same hanger, so he can pick out his own outfit and it matches every time. I’ve since removed the hanging shelf and those clothes hung up or in the dresser, but I’ll maintain the single hanger option as long as they’ll let me. Putting clothes away is so easy!

2. Second hand and know my brands
I don’t buy kids clothes often, but when I do, I buy lots. Craigslist lots to be specific. I’ll buy a lot, or group, of clothes for about $1 per piece, often cheaper, and have a nearly complete wardrobe very inexpensively. I haven’t had great luck finding good quality cheap clothes at local thrift stores and garage sales; they’re frequently no less expensive than clearance at regular stores, and I have a hard time finding things in really good condition that I can later resell.

I look for ads with pictures that state damage free (no holes, no stains), brand name clothes in excellent or very good used condition, from non-smoking households. I am not a brand name shopper for myself, but I have found that some brands hold up better to being worn by multiple kids than others. No-name brands fall apart quickly, while better quality brands can go through multiple kids and washes without falling apart.

This trick seems to work best for small kids. After age 3-4, kids wear out clothes faster than they outgrow them, so fewer lots in great condition seem to be available. As Peanut is moving into big-kid sizes, I’m having a harder time finding used clothes in good condition for $1!

3. Stock up at Gymboree (really!) and other clearance sales

Now Gymboree isn’t known for it’s cheap kids clothes, but they have really good sales and it is worth learning how to take advantage of them! I use the method outlined at Never Pay Retail Again and routinely save 60-75% off retail price. I try to get a variety of pieces in the same series so I can easily mix and match for a variety of outfits at the least expense.

Starting Thursday, 3/18, they’re offering a Fill-A-Bag sale – 30% off your entire purchase – PLUS you can stack a 20% coupon and earn Gymbucks toward a future order! Check out the details over at Never Pay Retail Again.

Clearance sales in general are fantastic to keep an eye on, but have a bottom line, a dollar amount you won’t exceed per item, to make it most cost effective. I will not spend more than $5 per piece for anything other than jeans ($10) or jackets ($20). I have had great luck with finding quality pieces with this limit in mind.

Target often marks down 30%, then 50%, and occasionally more. Carter’s Outlet will mark down to 90% off, and frequently offer coupons, but they’re in-store only. Old Navy has crazy end-of-season sales smack dab in the middle of the season, and they occasionally have 50% off of already clearanced items. I’ve been able to stock up on new things for the kids for under $1 in the store. I could save even more next time by buying gift cards online for less.

4. Resell it!

These are all tricks to buying clothes inexpensively, but inexpensive is not practically free, so I’ll let you in on part 2 of my kids clothes plan: I do my best to keep clothes looking good and then resell them when they’re outgrown. (I buy stain remover in bulk!)

For lots that I purchase on Craigslist, I pull out the clothes I like and then rebundle what is left to sell. I resell good brands in lots on Ebay, where I can get a few dollars per piece. Less great brands or basics sell at garage sales for $1 per piece. Recently, I bought a lot of 80 pieces for $30, including 7 Gymboree outfits that will be resold to recoup the entire $30; what’s left is free!

When I buy clothes, I leave the tags on until the kid is ready to wear the outfit, because occasionally a piece never gets worn and the resale value is higher with tags.

And there you have it, my method for clothing kids close to free: plan and shop ahead, buy good brands used and on clearance, and resell to recoup your money.

Do you have tips for buying kids clothes that I missed? Leave them in the comments!


This post is linked to Works for Me Wednesday.

A friend recently sent me a link to Graveyard Mall‘s amazing deal on printer ink refills – 24 refills (12 black, 4 each cyan, magenta, and yellow) for $19.99! I decided to give it a try and ordered it, plus an overhead light for the dining room on the daily deal for just $24.00.

They arrived a week later and I am happy to report that the ink refills work perfectly in my Brother printer! I followed the instructions and refilled all four colors in about 30 minutes, including the learning curve with the first set.  With a single ink cartridge for my printer regularly costing at least $9.99, I would have to spend $239.76 to get an equivalent amount of ink refills, plus much more garbage would be created.  More than 90% savings works for me!

Our dining room is also improved by an overhead light that actually works! A similar light at Home Depot costs $246.00 plus tax. I’d put off replacing the lighting fixture because it was unaffordable, but again, that 90% off puts it into the affordable category.

Now I need to touch up the paint on the ceiling that was covered by the previous fixture.

Not everything at Graveyard Mall is marked down so steeply, and because it’s an outlet, you can’t be guaranteed that the same thing will be there when you go shopping. I don’t know if everything on the site is quite as good a deal, either, but I’m glad I checked it out!

(I am not affiliated with Graveyard Mall and do not get any financial incentive for this review. I was just pleased with the deals I found and wanted to pass them along!)

This week, I’m using recipes from the cookbook How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. I checked it out of the library, a great resource for cookbook lovers like myself! Do you read cookbooks for fun, cover to cover like a novel, or am I the only one?

I’ve heard good things about this book, and its vegetarian counterpart which was already checked out. I’m excited by the variety of yummy-looking dishes!

I also got a fantastic deal on raw spinach this week, 2.5 lb. for $3.99, so we’ll be eating a lot of spinach this week, including Green Smoothies for breakfast (not in the book.) Good thing we like spinach!

This week, we’ll be having:

Pollock en papillote with spinach, baked potato
Bean and Corn Pancakes, brown rice broccoli
Meatloaf with spinach, mashed potatoes, green beans
Stir-fried chicken and spinach, fried rice
Creamy squash soup, cornbread


Last week’s Lorna Sass “Pressure Perfect” menu didn’t disappoint. Did I mention last week that just about any meal made in a pressure cooker can easily be frozen for a quick meal on a busy night – just defrost and heat up. The Un-Stuffed Cabbage in Sweet-and-Sour Tomato sauce with meatballs is always delicious, and really good reheated. I made an extra batch for the freezer, and an extra batch of split pea soup with smoked paprika. Yum!

Coming up this week:
* Pictures of the kitchen, and the organized entry cabinet
* Kids clothes close to free
* Scratch vs. Store Bought: Popcorn
* More money making and saving tips

To see more menus, head over to Menu Plan Monday.

We have a small house, under 950 square feet, built in the 1940’s, with 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. It’s cozy, but it fits for us. After posting the crazy “before” dining room pictures, I got a request to see our bathroom and kitchen. They stay reasonably neat, especially in comparison to the dining room, but neither would win any House Beautiful contests.

Today you can take a look at our bathroom. I need to scrub the corner of the shower and the scuff marks on the wall near the toilet, but it’s overall fairly tidy.

My shampoo and conditioner are in the corner of the tub. I use Giovanni Smooth as Silk and love, love it. I bought a small container for full price early last year, loved the results, and did a little happy dance in the aisle when I found these bigger containers at Marshalls for 1/3 of the regular price per ounce. I bought two shampoos and one conditioner, and I’m still on the first shampoo, so it should last awhile. I don’t see myself paying full price for it when it runs out, though, so I’m stretching it.

I see that there is a red bath toy behind the toilet in this picture; it’s back in the toy basket, which lives in the tub between baths. My mother-in-law is disabled, so we have the bar for her. We definitely need to repaint in here, including putting putty over the old TP roll holder in the wall. The door doesn’t quite reach the bottom of the floor for reasons I don’t quite understand, so when I’m in the bathtub, I’ll sometimes hear kids outside and see little hands poking in from underneath!

I wash the sink and toilet most nights while the kids take their baths, because I have a new-to-the-potty boy whose aim needs work, and two very exuberant hand washers!

The medicine cabinet. Top row: my make-up brushes and make-up, and the unexpected multi-tasker: Monistat anti-chafing gel, which I use as make-up primer. It sounds crazy, but the ladies over at Make-Up Alley rave about it and it is SO much cheaper than the stuff I used before (Smashbox, before frugal). If you have an FSA, you can even buy it with pre-tax money.

Middle row: Q-tips with my tweezers on top, Chagrin Valley Dead Sea Spa facial soap (no coupons – I pay full price because I love that stuff!), floss, band-aids, and eyelash curler.

Bottom shelf: sunscreen, eye make-up remover, Mr. Penny’s deodorant, my deodorant, various face creams that I never actually use (I got the top one as a sample, some Olay wrinkle thing, and the bottom one with a coupon-sale combo; I don’t use them so I should probably toss them), Cetaphil moisturizer from Costco that I’ve been using a full 5 years. Does that stuff expire? It’s probably time to replace it, even though there is 1/3 of the jar left. And I see in the picture that I need to clean the line on the bottom!

I’ll post pictures of my kitchen next week. In the meantime, this is the project I’m working on:

The crazy messy entry cabinet. I cleared it out yesterday and am sorting through the piles of junk. It’s empty and almost nothing belongs there, so I’m working to find homes for a lot of this stuff, and sorting papers. I’ll  post the “after” picture with the kitchen next week.