12 Items We Always Have In Our Pantry

We don’t have a walk in pantry, but we do have some shelving downstairs at the bottom of the stairs that houses our stock-up items and overflow items.

I was taking a look and noticed that there are some things that we always have.  They either:

  • Are used in many planned meals we make
  • Can be used to throw something together

Twelve Pantry Items We Always Keep On Hand

  1. Breakfast Cereal – We love eating cereal either for the breakfast meal or for kids snacks.  We usually have some combination of Chex, Cheerios, or Crispix.  Source: Costco, Meijer
  2. Oatmeal – This is another common breakfast around our house, and we have instant oats and regular oats.  Many times we’ll make some regular oats on the stove, and some instant oats in the microwave, and mix it together to provide food for everyone.  Source: Costco
  3. Pasta – We always have some boxes of pasta on hand as it’s a center of many meals or can just be used if we"Not

    don’t have any other ideas. Source: Meijer

  4. Pasta Sauce – We always have some ‘red sauce’ on hand as well.  We got away from using the stuff loaded with sugar (e.g. Ragu, Prego) and instead typically stock up with Kirkland or Bertolli.  Source: Costco
  5. Canned Mushrooms – This always goes into our regular pasta dishes and we use them for other meals as well.  We often use fresh mushrooms, but if we don’t have any on hand, these are a good alternative.  Source: Aldi
  6. Canned Tomatoes – We love things like chili or lasagna or other items where tomatoes provide the base.  So we always stock up when we can on the various types of canned tomatoes for these recipes.  Source: Meijer, Aldi.
  7. Canned Beans – Again, we use a lot of recipes where beans are great to have on hand, so we’ll typically stock up on black beans, kidney beans, and other types that I can’t even remember, but always work well.  Source: Meijer, Aldi.
  8. Soup – When you don’t know what to have for lunch, a can of soup is always a good option, either by itself or along with something like a grilled cheese sandwich. When there are sales plus coupon opportunities, we will stock up regularly.  Source: Meijer
  9. Macaroni & cheese – Boxed mac & cheese is a favorite.  Our cat even used to love it!  It isn’t the healthiest thing so we don’t always eat it regularly, but it is nice to have some on hand for a quick meal or a side dish.  Source: Meijer, Kroger.
  10. Starchy sides – Our meals usually consist of a main dish, a vegetable and some sort of side.  We stock up on things like the aforementioned mac & cheese, but also things like rice, Rice-a-Roni, couscous, and other stuff that might be on sale.  Source: Meijer, Kroger, Aldi
  11. Chicken/Veggie Stock – We start many meals with some kind of stock.  We’ll often have liquid stock or a stock like Better than Bouillon to get things started.  Source: Costco, Meijer
  12. Snacks – We always have some sort of snack items for adults and kids.  Typically they vary between what’s on sale, what’s in season, and what we have a taste for, but we try to keep a few different things on hand.  Source: Costco, Meijer, Aldi, Kroger.

We usually have a variety of other things mixed in and the shelves can get full depending on how much we stock up, but chances are if you came at any time to do an inventory, you’re definitely going to find these twelve things.

Readers, what do you keep as ‘in-stock’ items at all times?

 

Why Thursday Night Is Pizza Night (For Now)

Tonight is pizza night for us.  And Thursday nights will be for a while, at least the next couple of months.  And, it all has to do with….swim lessons!

How Swim Lessons Beget Pizza Night

Both of our kids have attended a not-for-profit co-op preschool during their age appropriate years.  In order to keep tuition low, they do various fundraisers, and the biggest one has always been a silent auction held in March.

One of the items that has always been donated is a month membership to a nearby swim school.  We have bid on it and been lucky enough to win every year.  It usually saves us a bit of money for at least the free month compared to the regular tuition, plus we get some accessories like goggles and such.

This year, we found ourselves with two month passes to use, as we won both last year and this year, and hadn’t yet used either one.

Both of our kids have had great times and learned a lot there, so we decided to enroll them each in swim lessons.  This worked out great because you can only use one month per child.

As it so happened, we were able to schedule their lessons at the same time, which is 4:30pm on Tuesday.  This means a pretty mad scramble to get ready and get there after our son gets off the bus at 4pm.

My wife and I both like to go and watch how they’re doing, plus at their ages (6 and 4), getting them cleaned up and changed afterward is definitely easier when you split the duties.

The lessons are about half hour, and by the time we’re done getting everything ready, often another half hour or so has passed.  This puts us squarely at dinner time.

The crook in the story might be getting heartburn from his pizza
The crook in the story might be getting heartburn from his pizza

My wife and I decided, in a pretty short conversation, that pizza would be a great fit for Thursday nights.

Simple Is Fine

We’re not fancy when it comes to pizza, so we have a few different options on the way home.  We like Little Caesar’s, either the $5 round or $8 deep dish pizza.  Last week Domino’s had a coupon code where we got 50% off, so that’s what we had.  We also have Papa Romano’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Hut all on the way or not too far off the direct path.

If needed, we’ll order the pizza in advance and pick it up so that when we get home, all we do is throw together a salad.  Then, we’re eating in no time!  This is especially good with children who are hungry after their swimming!

The tradition won’t last forever.  We anticipate that we’ll run the lessons through May.  By that point we’ll start getting busy with camping trips or other summer activities.  Eventually,  so  the Thursday pizza night tradition will fade.  But, for now it’s definitely a fun little family tradition, and not too expensive at all!

Readers, do you have any ‘regular’ meals that stem from other things going on in life?   

Our Disney World Experience: Disney World Dining

This is the 4th post in my series on our recent trip (November 2015) to Disney World.  This was a huge trip for our family, one that we consider ‘once in a lifetime’ and that my wife planned out to give us the most magical and memorable experiences.  I’ve already talked about our visits to the parks as well as our hotel, so I wanted to concentrate on Disney World Dining.  It’s definitely worth a post of its own.

Meal Plan

We decided to dine at Disney with the standard meal plan.  With that plan, you get one full service meal, one quick service meal, and one snack per day.  You can divide how you use up your dining credits over the course of your trip. Our plan ended up technically being ‘free’ because we upgraded to a deluxe hotel during our stay, and Disney offered the ‘free dining’ option to entice visitors.  And, it did as things were hopping!

Tips On Planning

If you plan on eating at Disney, you will want to be prepared in order to really enjoy your experience.  Here are a few things we learned:

Know what you want

Disney has all sorts of options.  They have fancier options, things that lean toward kid friendly, and everything in between.  We wanted a few ‘character’ meals where the characters will walk around and pose for pictures, and knowing this type of preference up front helped us focus our list.

Plan your days in full

We set out a rough plan of what park we wanted to go to on what day.  In some cases, we planned the park around the dining options available, and in some cases it was the opposite.  Either way, you have to have a plan. However…

Be flexible

You can start booking your dining reservations (I think) 180 days out from the start of your trip. mb-2016-01-ears You want to have a list of places that you want to go, and have an idea, but be flexible.  You may see that a ‘must dine’ place is not available on your preferred day, but is available on a different day, and if that happens, you might have to act quickly.

Don’t lose hope

After you make all your plans, you may find that you’ve settled on some options but don’t lose hope.  There are apps you can download that will allow you to plug in where you want to go and when, and they’ll send you an alert if something opens up.  The problem is that there are probably others who are getting the same alert at the same time, so be prepared to act quickly.

Use resources and past experience

We had a great book we bought off Amazon, plus a plethora of web sites that we used to get our information.  Everybody will find what’s important to them (and hopefully this post helps some), but use the information that’s out there to make sure that you’re getting the best experience.

Our Favorite Disney World Dining Options

Now, onto some of the memorable dining experiences we had.  In each case, I outlined the name of the restaurant, where it was, the type of dining credit that was used, and some thoughts that I hope help.

1900 Park Fare

Grand Floridian Resort – Table Credit – We dined here on our arrival night, and it was a character dinner with Cinderella and some other characters.  It was a buffet and the food was good.  We had an awesome waitress, who was friendly, great with our kids, and gave us some tips that helped us not only at this meal but in just about every other character meal we had afterward.  One of our best Disney meals!

La Hacienda de San Angel

Epcot – Table Credit – We had a dinner reservation as we really enjoy Mexican food, and it’s one of our favorite dine-out options at home.  While there was nothing wrong with the meal, I think that we had higher expectations but it really wasn’t much above some of the options we have at home.  While we enjoyed it, there was nothing earth shattering and we’d probably skip it in the future.

Hollywood N Vine

Hollywood Studios – Table Credit – Another buffet meal that was character based.  It was a good time but the kids were tired, and the characters took quite a bit of time before they made their way to our table.  We actually had another reservation booked at this restaurant for later in the trip, but ended up cancelling it.

Be Our Guest (Breakfast)

Magic Kingdom – Quick Service – This was a really cool breakfast, as the experience of being in the Beast’s castle is the most memorable part, so much that we actually had a lunch and dinner here as well (the lunch was quick service and the dinner table service).  The food was good, and this was the only place where we were able to order in advance, which did make it nice in that the kids didn’t have to wait long to get their food once we arrived.

Tusker House (Breakfast)

Animal Kingdom – Quick Service (pretty sure) – This was another character meal and also a buffet, but had really good food.  In fact, all of the Animal Kingdom dining options seemed a step above most other parks.  We really enjoyed our location, the food, and the characters.  It was very relaxing but fun at the same time.

Sanna

Animal Kingdom Lodge – Table Service – Each deluxe resort has a full service restaurant, and this was a spur of the moment change that we made.  I am not really one to try ‘new things’, so the idea of eating traditional African food was a bit scary to me, but I went with it, and I am glad I did!  The food was really good.  Definitely get the add-on bread service as that’s a basis for the entire meal.  The wait staff was very friendly, the ambiance was great, and while the kids got a little bored by the end, they still enjoyed themselves and the food.

Cinderella’s Royal Table

Magic Kingdom – Table Service (2 credits) – This is the premier reservation, as you actually dine right inside Cinderlla’s Castle.  Pretty snazzy!  Expectations are high, and that’s actually why we dined there twice as our first experience was less than stellar.  We were very rushed and had less than accommodating wait staff, largely because we were the last lunchtime reservation and they were focused on turning things over for the upcoming dinner meal.  We spoke to the manager, and he apologized and offered for us to come back at no charge.  That experience was wonderful.  It was one of our best dining experiences!

In fact, when I e-mailed the manager later in the day to thank him, I said that the breakfast experience was exactly as our family had imagined that dining in ‘the castle’ would be, and thanked him for making sure that we had that.

Wolfgang Puck Express

Disney Springs – Quick Service – This was a spur of the moment decision for us to head to Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) and we loved it.  We all got pasta and really enjoyed the quick and easy experience.  In an earlier post, I mentioned how the quick service restaurants at the resorts seem a bit lacking.  See, they might not offer as much because they know that they have a ‘captive audience’.  However, we quickly found that it’s not really that much difference.  In the 45 minutes we might have stood in line to get disappointing food at our hotel’s quick serve, we were able to get ready and take a bus over.  We ended up with much better food and a great family dinner.

Mickey Shaped Stuff

The great thing about Disney World is that Mickey is everywhere, including in the food options.  It’s all over the place.  From waffles to pretzels to ice cream (my favorite), you’ll get to take a ‘bite’ out of Mickey just about anywhere you look!

There Was More

This barely scratches the surface of all of the different places we went and the food we ate.  Still, I wanted to highlight a few options that stood out.  It’s been a little over a month between the time that we got back and when I wrote this. I’d say that food is probably the first memory that tends to fade on a trip like this.  So, that these stand out means they are remarkable in some way.

I hope you found this helpful.

Readers, I’d love to hear your experiences with Disney World dining.  Let me know if I can answer any questions (in which case, the true answer will probably come from my wife as she put all the legwork into getting us well fed!)

General Mills Might Be Going Off The Rails With Yoplait Yogurt

I love yogurt and typically eat one cup every day.  I’ve not hopped aboard the Greek yogurt bandwagon, as I really don’t care much for the texture and taste, but I still stick with ‘regular’ yogurt.

A year or two ago, as part of an effort to eliminate the consumption of artificial sweeteners in my diet, I switched from the low calorie (100 calories in most varieties) to the regular version.

By and large, I stuck with three different brands that I enjoyed the most.  Yoplait, plus two store brands (Meijer’s Purple Cow brand, and Aldi’s house brand).  My wife usually got me whatever brand out of the three that was the best price for the week between sale prices, coupons, etc.

It’s been a good system, but just in the past few weeks, the Yoplait brands have made some significant changes:

  • Lower Sugar – Yoplait regular yogurt (red cups) now have 25% less sugar than they did before.  This reduces the calories in a cup (on average going from 170 to 150 calories in a cup).  To offset, they increased the amount of milk in order to attempt to keep the same texture.
  • New Advertising Campaign –  To go along with their new formulations, they seem to be making a push to more TV and print advertising.

On the surface, both of these things seem like pretty good movements.  After all, more healthy options seems to benefit all, and getting the word out has to be a good idea, right?

My Impressions

However, having seen both firsthand, I feel that either one could blow up in their face, and the combination could be catastrophic.  Let me explain:

  • The new taste – I tried out a few cups of the new formula and I was not overly impressed.  You can definitely tell the lower sugar content as it’s not as sweet.  If this was the only change, I’d probably be OK.   I could use a little less sugar in my diet, but the problem is that texture seems off.  It seems more chalky and thicker at the same time.  Honestly, it seems they sacrificed quite a bit just to offer a healthier option and cut 20 calories from their offering.
  • The new ad campaign – The TV spots are hard to miss.  They feature a young, pixie-type woman talking in a very heavy French accent about Yoplait.   The colors and general theme can only be described as loud and bouncy.  The first time my wife and I saw one of the commercials, we both looked at each other with an expression wondering if this was for real.  I said: “I don’t get it.” She asked, “Are they making fun of European people?”  I’m not quite sure what message they’re intending to send, but I’m pretty sure it’s not being very well received.

Social Media As A Gauge

mb-2015-07-signMany times, when I have opinions like this, I am not sure if I’m in the minority.  Maybe people love the new flavors or think that the commercials are fantastic.  Who knows?  So, in order to get a read, I’ll head over to Facebook and check out their product page.  I’ve looked at their Facebook page.  It appears I’m not the only one with concerns.  People think the product change is too drastic (New Coke, anyone?) and wish they hadn’t changed it or offered the new formula as an alternative instead of a replacement.  Many people don’t understand the commercials and turn the channel or fast forward through them as soon as they come on.

It seems the changes are not being well received at all.  Yikes!

I love yogurt. I’d hate to see my number of favorable options reduce from three to two options.  The way things are looking for Yoplait, I’m not convinced they’ll stay in  my rotation.  We’ll have to wait and see.

How I Keep Brown Bagging Fresh

I don’t go out for lunch.  Period.  Or at least, it’s pretty rare, maybe once or twice per year.  Outside of that, I brown bag it.  Well, actually I have a reusable bag that’s gray so as to save on waste, but you get the idea, right?

So, how do I keep it fresh.  Well, it’s not easy, but really the secret for me is mixing and Brown baggingmatching, all while staying within a few guidelines.

Generally there are four components to my lunch, and presented in the normal order which I eat them:

  1. Vegetables – This is the one area where I don’t have too much in the way of variety, as I take carrot sticks 95% or more of the time.  I just don’t get sick of them.  It does help that we cut our own carrots.  We started doing that a few years back, and after doing so, quickly realized that they taste much better than the pre-cut baby carrots.
  2. The Main Portion – Next, I move on to the main part of the meal, which more times than not is a sandwich.  However, there’s no way I can take a sandwich five days a week, week in and week out.  Just not going to happen.  So, usually 1-2 times per week on average I’ll have some sort of leftovers from an evening meal.  However, on the sandwich front, I try to keep it up by switching between salami, ham, PB&J, and occasionally turkey, all from the deli.  We also mix up the bread we buy, usually buying whatever is on sale between 5 or 6 different types.
  3. Fruit – I always have some sort of fruit.  This rotates between what’s in season.  For example, right now we’re eating a lot of strawberries, but in the fall, we’ll have lots of apples to eat.  If we have multiple kinds of fruit in the house, often I’ll combine them to make a simple fruit salad.
  4. Yogurt – I have a yogurt cup every day.  I am apparently one of the few people in the world that has not moved to the Greek yogurt craze.  I prefer regular yogurt.  I do like different flavors, so I keep this fresh by rotating flavors.  I generally get whatever is the best price between three different brands (Aldi, Meijer’s Purple Cow, or Yoplait) that I have found I like the best, and between the three, there’s enough rotation in the flavor to keep it from getting too boring.

That’s really it.  I guess you could say that my lunches have definitely moved toward consistency, but by trying to mix things up between the different areas as much as possible, it makes brown bagging an option that, so far, I have not gotten sick of.

And, I do love the savings as opposed to people that consistently go out.

Readers, do you brown bag it?  What do you do to keep yourself from revolting against the same lunch day in and day out?

9 Reasons Why We Don’t Buy Shredded Cheese

It’s been a long time since we’ve bought a bag of shredded cheese.  Back in my single days, that’s all I ever used.  I’m honestly not even sure I owned a cheese grater!

Now, we buy only block cheese and shred it ourselves.

Here are six reasons why block cheese is better than shredded cheese.

  1. Less Chemicals, Part 1 – Shredded cheese is very convenient but in order to make a product that sells, the companies have to make sure that it stays in shredded form.  If you shred your own cheese, you’ll often note that it will very quickly start to clump together.  That’s fine if you shred and use, but if this happened while it was sitting on the shelves, nobody would buy it!  So, after they shred it, they coat it with chemicals to make sure that it does not clump up.
  2. Less Chemicals, Part 2 – Another problem with shredded cheese is that it is quite
    susceptible to mold growth.   Cheese in any form will start to mold when exposed to air.  Block cheese works great because there’s no air, but with a bag of shredded cheese, there’s just no humanly way possible to get the air out of the bag.  So, in order to lengthen the time before it starts going moldy, the companies, you guessed it, add more chemicals.  Now of course, they’ll tell you that the chemicals are perfectly safe, but why take the risk if you don’t have to?
  3. Shredded cheese is difficult to melt – If you’re using shredded cheese in a recipe that calls for nice, gooey cheese, chances are you’ll be disappointed with shredded cheese.  I’m guessing that the chemicals are doing what they’re designed to do, but it makes for terrible melting.  Block cheese that you shred yourself, however, melts just fine.
  4. Shredding cheese is easy – It’s really not that hard to shred cheese.  Grab a grater, open a block of cheese and away you go.  I do most of the shredding in our house, and an 8 ounce block doesn’t take but a couple of minutes. If you rinse off the grater right after you’re done, cleanup is a cinch.
  5. If you shred cheemb-2015-03-cheesese, you get to eat cheese! – I’m the go-to guy in our house when it comes to shredding cheese.  I actually like it, but my little secret is that I like doing it because when I’m done, I grab a pinch of freshly shredded cheese and enjoy it!  Few things top that.
  6. Block cheese is often cheaper – Depending on the cheese and the store, we’ll often find that you get an ounce or two less of pre-shredded cheese compared to what you get in for a package in block form, yet the price is the same.  To me, it’s worth getting the most cheese for my buck for the simple task of shredding it.

3 Other Things To Know About Shredding Cheese

The items above are full of some good information, but here are a few other things to know:

  • Block cheese keeps well – If you only need 4 ounces, there’s no need to shred a whole block. Simply cut off what you need and shred that, wrap the rest up, and put it back in the fridge.  That will keep the rest of the block lasting fresh for much longer than if you put the remainder back in shredded form.
  • Block cheese freezes – I actually did not know this but apparently you can freeze block cheese and as long as it’s not cream based (most isn’t except for, well, cream cheese, of course), the cheese will be just fine.  This is actually useful information, as we’ve generally shied away from buying larger bricks at Costco or when they’re on sale at the grocery store, for fear that we wouldn’t be able to use all of the cheese once opened.
  • Mold on block cheese isn’t the end world – If you get a little mold growth on the end of an open container of block cheese, you can simply cut it off and use the rest.  On shredded cheese, once you get mold started, chances are it exists through your entire package and needs to be discarded.  Waste less with block cheese.

Readers, for your cheese needs, are you a shred or block household?  What importance does convenience play?