Maybe, some day, Oatmeal and I will get along.

Yesterday, I mentioned a long-standing feud that I have with Oatmeal. I don’t like oatmeal. I have never liked oatmeal, but I have to eat it because it’s healthy.

For the longest time, the mere sight of cooked oatmeal was mildly nauseating. I could handle oatmeal baths, oatmeal raisin cookies, no-bake cookies… But a regular bowl of oatmeal? Perish the thought. I made it a point to try it every few years. Before this week, the last time I tried oatmeal was three years ago, sitting down for a bowl of oatmeal at Starbucks when the shop in my school had a morning sale on it for the winter. I put all of the provided nuts, fruits, and brown sugar into it, plus some more sugar, and a little milk. I think I was trying to make it into an oatmeal cookie.

But I failed, and only choked down three or four bites before I gave up and, hating myself for wasting food, threw it away. Unwilling to repeat the embarrassing mistake, I avoided oatmeal like the plague for a while yet. I only purchased the Oat Revolution packets on the condition that my roommate would, should I discover that I found it entirely unpalatable, eat the rest for me.

Fortunately, with the help of some Kashi cereal for texture, I managed to choke down the first bowl. It was horrible, mostly because I made it in too shallow of a bowl, so it got weirdly crusty and tough. Recognizing my mistake, I didn’t entirely give up, but it was a few days before I tried again, this time in a smaller bowl. I added a half cup of dried berry mix I had gotten at Wal-Mart for that very purpose, and managed to eat the entire bowl with slightly less gagging.

I doubt I will ever truly enjoy it, but since oatmeal is one of the healthiest, most filling hot breakfasts you can find, I will continue to seek out ways to make it edible for me. Here is a list of ways I’ve found so far:

  • Add dried fruit, like cherries, blueberries, cranberries, raisins, and such.
  • Add fresh fruit, like diced apples, which hold their crunch well enough in the mush.
  • Add granola or cereal to oatmeal after cooking, to add texture and give you something to bite into.
  • Blend it into a smoothie.

Okay, I haven’t tried the last one, but I’m considering it. I’ll let you know how that goes!

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Breakfast Is Important! (But You Know This)

When I was a kid, I loved oatmeal, apparently. Somewhere between my earliest memories and the next time I ate oatmeal, though, something happened. For the last 15 years, I’ve been unable to stomach the healthy, quick, and easy breakfast option, and it’s taken its toll. Every time I see oatmeal, and read the articles touting its well-known and bountiful health benefits, I got very sad.

Then, I discovered an oatmeal called Oat Revolution. It is single-serve packets with the measuring utility built-into the packet for the water, and it’s simply microwave and eat. It was simple, it was cheap, and I decided to give oatmeal one more try.

I still don’t like it… But it doesn’t make me gag anymore, which is a bonus. I just need to add a granola on top to give it a texture other than “mush.” It’ll be added to my “quick and easy breakfast” list, since I’m making an effort lately to eat something—anything—before I leave for work nowadays. Here are some of my quick and easy breakfasts, just little things so you don’t walk out the door hungry:

  • Scrambled egg (In the microwave!) on toast: Take a bowl and spray it with a little bit of cook spray. Scramble a single egg into the bottom, and add any herbs or spices you prefer in your eggs. Microwave it for 45 seconds, then check to make sure it’s cooked. Most microwaves will finish cooking the egg within a minute, so experiment with yours to find the right time. While that’s going, make a slice of toast, and butter it. After the egg is done, slide the egg out of the bowl onto the toast, and maybe top with cheese, salsa, or whatever else suits your fancy (My roommate likes ketchup). You can eat this easily on your way to the car, and it gives you a bit of carbs, a bit of protein, and depending on the bread you pick, some fiber and whole grains as well! Think-cut and Texas-style toast works well for breads, but English muffins, bagels, and rolls are all good substitutes.
  • Oatmeal: The oatmeal I mentioned above isn’t the only instant oatmeal out there. Oatmeal and a banana or an apple will give you the energy to make it through if you have to walk out the door with only five minutes to eat something. If you have more time, you can dress it up in a hundred different ways, with fruit, milk, jams/jelly, and so on, but the basics will give you a good boost on an empty stomach.
  • Bananas!: A banana has a ton of vital nutirents, plus fiber to help fill you up. If you work out in the morning, grab a banana to help you through it. They’re cheap and easy, and if they start to go brown, you can peel them, freeze them, and use them in smoothies! When I lived in Japan, bananas were just about the only fruit I could afford, so I got used to eating them frequently, and I came to love the little yellow energy boost.
  • Granola Bar and Peanut Butter: Another quick carb-and-protien morning combo is granola bars (I like the Nature Valley crunchy Honey and Oat ones) with peanut butter on top. You can sprinkle some cinnamon on the peanut butter, or some dried fruit, like cherries, blueberries, cranberries or raisins. A sliced banana is also awesome on top, and the whole think only takes a minute and a half to put together. This one is also perfect for eating on your way out the door.
  • Bowl of Cereal: The old standby, a bowl of cereal, can be eaten in bites between putting on your shirt and putting on your shoes. There are plenty of healthy, ineexpensive options. Look at the store brands, and bargain brands like Malt-o-Meal, whose cereals are often almost identical to the expensive, brand-name ones. Compare labels and find what you’re looking for, then top it with skim milk, almond or soy milk. Unless you drink the milk afterwards, you don’t really notice the difference!

These are only a tiny, tiny few of the hundreds of thousands of options for the all-important breakfast, but they are probably some of the most common, and easiest morning meals. Don’t miss the most important meal of the day just because you’re in a rush!

My Budget Shopping List Staples

I think everyone has their own list of ‘staple’ foods to keep in the house. It’s largely based on what you’re into, what you like to eat, and what you can afford. There probably is, somewhere, a staple list that includes “Bread and Milk”, and that’s the long and short of it. But what about those who are lactose intolerant? Gluten intolerant? People who are cutting out HFCS?

My “Pantry Staples” list is constantly evolving, especially since I’ve been trying to eat more healthily. Originally, a loaf of bread was on my list. Since I started looking more closely at food labels, though, I’ve had to cut that off. Bakery bread is too expensive, and the wonderbread you get on the shelf generally contains as much preservatives as wheat. I’ve had to find alternatives, and it’s difficult on a budget, but I won’t compromise my health for my wallet.

It IS possible to eat healthily on a budget. They key is moderation, and know where you can spend your money and where to cut back. My staples diet list right now includes the following items:

Pasta. I know that overindulgence in grains is bad for you, but  since this is one of the cheaper bulks you can get, I feel justified in merely watching my intake. I keep an eye on the sales, and when the Barilla Plus or the Ronzoni Smart Taste pastas go on sale, I snag two or three boxes. For years, my “serving” of pasta consisted of 1/3-1/2 of a box thrown in a huge pot of water, then mixed with whatever was on hand. It took a lot of self-control and time to get to the point where one actual serving-size of pasta satisfied me, but I manage it, largely by pairing it with plenty of vegetables.

Speaking of vegetables, the next thing on my list is bags of frozen veggies. As a  fairly loyal Meijer shopper, I can only speak to their selection, but they have a decent variety of store-brand frozen vegetable mixes that pair well with my pasta, or with chicken, potatoes, eggplant Parmesan, or whatever else strikes your fancy. I stay away from their broccoli cuts, because experience tells me they aren’t that good, but their “Mexican” and “Parisian” blends are tasty and versatile.

Fresh veggies are also essential. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and, if on sale, bell peppers of all colors. Tomato, I do many things with. I could post entirely about the wonders of my favorite fruit/veggie magician, but suffice to say for now that, with the help of the cucumber and some hummus, tomato sammiches are amazing. Bell peppers chop up and freeze well to go into stir-fry and other amazing dishes.

Cheese is another thing that makes person-specific appearances. I have to have a bag of fancy shredded cheddar, and a block of pepper jack in my fridge almost at all times. I put it on pasta, potatoes, nachoes, crackers, in dips, and so on. I used to douse everything in cheese, but I’ve since learned that the one-ounce serving size works just as well for flavoring and adding some nutrients to my food. I buy full-fat cheese, except for mozzarella, because it’s like a seasoning, and I will be darned if I deprive myself of its whole deliciousness.

There are obviously a lot more things to my pantry than these, but in a pinch, if I can’t afford anything else, I make sure that’s what I have, because those are the things I never tire of eating. I’ve learned that is the key to being able to hold out on a little money. You COULD survive on Ramen, but if you get sick of it,you really are just surviving, instead of living. Instead, find some things that are inexpensive, that you can sustain on for a long time, and you’re good.

Rome Wasn’t Cleaned In A Day…?

I will be the first to admit that occasionally, I’m kind of a slob. My single-teenage-girl’s bedroom was almost always messier than my two-adolescent-brother’s shared bedroom ever was. I’m not dirty, exactly, I just don’t like putting stuff away, when the floor is so much closer!

However, when I moved into an actual apartment for the first time, with a kitchen and laundry room and separate bed-and-living rooms, with my own private bathroom and a whole real pantry, I felt kind of like hot stuff. And I kept most of that mess clean.

…For all of a week.

For me, the urge to have things tidy and orderly is passing, and while I occasionally go on spring-cleaning-scale rampages, in the meantime the mess can start to get out of hand. So, as part of my New-Month’s-Resolutions (I’m aware it’s past mid-month anyway), I’m going to work on cleaning again. It’s not as if I have an excuse. School dosen’t start for another 5 weeks, and since I only work 6 hours a day on average, it’s not like I don’t have time.

The biggest issue for me, is breaking it into manageable chunks. I don’t like working for hours on end, only to realize that i’ve technically only crossed one thing off my list. It’s a little bit of a mind-trick, but when you put: “Sort Clothes, Wash/Dry Clothes, and Fold/Hang-up Clothes” on your list, instead of “Do Laundry”, you feel a little better being able to check off the steps, showing progress, instead of having to wait three hours to check one little box.

Everyone has a lot of the same basic tasks. Laundry, Cleaning, Preparing for upcoming events and obligations, and so on. I just mentioned how I like to break down laundry, but my mother goes a step further: She makes a grid of check boxes for five loads of wash, dry, and put-away, that way she can track her progress throughout the day as she slogs through piles of my brother’s football jerseys and dad’s three changes of clothes for work, relaxing, and chores.

Speaking of chores, there’s plenty of other things that can be broken down into parts. Cleaning can break down, not only into categories like “pick up papers” and “sweep/vacuum”, but even further down into “clean sink, clean toilet, mop floor, replenish toilet paper” for a bathroom.

Writing down all the single steps to a task helps keep me on track when I’m not really wanting to clean, and it helps keep me focused when I go on cleaning rampages, because otherwise I’d have half the house clean–in tiny spots that get quickly overwhelmed!

I think, when I get home today, I will sort, launder, and put away the backlog of clothes I have waiting for me, before putting my muffin mixes in order, gathering my spices into one spot, and stacking my canned soup so I can wash the counter, do a sinkful of dishes, and wipe out the microwave. That’s nine whole things I can accomplish tonight!

Quick, Short-Wait Refrigerator Pickles!

A few days ago, I posted about testing out a pickle recipe I found at Tasty-Yummies.com. I made the pickles three days ago now, and my roommate and I finally cracked open a jar and had at them.

First, let me say that I am thoroughly impressed with myself. Neither of us died of food poisoning, which is what I was afraid of. I’ve never made anything like that before, so I was quite pleased when they turned out perfectly flavorful and sour, with a nice crunch and everything!

My next step is to make a huge batch of pickles, in properly large mason jars, to give away as presents for the fall!

If you have ever wanted to make pickles, I highly recommend this recipe. It took me all of ten minutes to make the brine, and I took more time cutting the cucumbers than I took actually distributing the brine over the four jars I used. Beth over at Tasty-Yummies.com says that this brine goes well with lots of veggies, from carrots to cauliflower. I haven’t tried those yet, but that might have to be next!

Excuse Me, My Nerd Is Showing.

I got involved in a discussion recently regarding the frequent comparisons between Harry Potter-style Potions, and either Chemistry or Cooking. I’m of the opinion that it is more akin to Chemistry–where something small could make things go horribly wrong, but my debate partner maintained that it was more like cooking–an art–that could come out good or bad, with degrees in between.

Well, we see enough of Neville utterly destroying cauldrons, but I also admit to once destroying a pot (and almost our glass cook top) while trying to boil water (I was 12. Shh.). Nevertheless, food rarely explodes (half-boiled eggs in microwaves hardly count) and you generally don’t cook up Veritaserum in your kitchen. In a chemist’s lab, however, we’ve gotten things like aspirin (Pepper-Up Potions?) and anti-venom (Beazors?).

Severus Snape himself describes Potions-making as a “Subtle science and exact art,” so in deference to the Potions Master, I will concede that it is both? That leaves us with no simple muggle metaphor, though, which makes writing fanfiction far more wordy than it needs to be.

A Little Pampering Goes A Long Way

I’m all about the luxurious life. Unfortunately, my wallet isn’t. So I’ve gotten along with ways to pamper myself without spending oodles of money. Sometimes, it’s little extravagances, like caving to my Starbucks cravings, or buying a fuzzy new pair of socks, but usually it’s more along the lines of a hot cup of tea and some cheesy Harry Potter fanfiction by candlelight. (Don’t judge me!)

A few months ago, at the beginning of Spring, the thrift store I visit on an almost weekly basis had an extra sale on robes. I picked up a gorgeous white sweatshirt-material knee-length zip-up hooded mess of comfy for three bucks, and that has become my default “Aaaaaahhhhhh” robe. Our apartment isn’t terribly fancy, and most of our candle holders are from the dollar store or thrift shops (there are a blessed ton of them in the area), but lighting them all up, pulling out my actual teapot, and nibbling on some shortbread cookies while reading blasphemous romances online is an unmatched luxury.

When you’ve not got much to go on, it’s the little things that count:

  1. Have a special kind of tea (or coffee, or hot cocoa, or whatever) that you ONLY drink when you’re feeling hedonistic and decadent. My luxury tea of choice is an organic white tea and peppermint blend that I picked up for two dollars at a Big Lots. Since I usually just drink a Lipton or Bigelow green tea, it feels utterly extravagant, regardless of the original price.
  2. Splurge on cookies once in a while. Again, my BFF Big Lots had a sale the other day, and the Pepperidge Farms Pirouette cookies–the long, round wafer sticks with creme inside–were $2 for a canister. Normally, they’re in the realm of $5-$6, so I felt quite giddy picking them up and taking them home to hoard for a few weeks, nibbling on one or two a day with my morning coffee, or my evening tea.
  3. Take a half hour to be lazy sometime. just utterly lazy. Eat something, and just leave the plate somewhere for a bit. Flop on your bed and stare at the clock for five minutes before rolling over and doing something pointless. Play Tetris or Flood-It on your phone. You can tidy back up and everything once your half hour of lazy is finished.
  4. Take a cup of plain, instant oatmeal, put it in a blender or food processor until it’s just dust. Then, draw a bath, pour the oatmeal in, and take a soothing, relaxing bath, with candles and music–the whole shebang. (Men, too! You can be pampered just as well as us ladies.)
  5. Pick a night, and make an appointment with yourself to cook an extravagant three-course meal. Make a soup and salad, a main dish, a few sides, and a dessert. The best part about doing this as a single person, or just as a couple, is the leftovers! Mix and match the soup and sides later, or the main dish and salad, or soup and dessert…! Take it with you to work for lunch, or have “Fancy Dinner Part II” the next evening.

I hope there’s something here that strikes your fancy. Let me know what other things you do to feel rich in today’s economy, I’m always looking for new things to try!