Monday, September 29, 2014

Essential Ingredients of a Broke-Ass Pantry

Singapore Curry Flavoured Noodles, -Mar. 2011 a
Fast, cheap and healthy -- there's a better way!
In an ideal world, we'd all have kitchens full of healthy, nutritious, exotic ingredients on-hand all the time.  In the real world, it seems inevitable that you run into a week (or month) where grocery bills are tight and some of those more exotic ingredients go by the way side.  If you can't afford to stock up on fresh produce and organic meats, here are a few nutritious (and cheap) staples that can keep you fed without resorting to over-processed crap:

Potatoes and sweet potatoes

Keep an eye out on sales and stock up when they become cheap.  Kept around 40 degrees in a dry, dark area, both will last for two to three months so don't be afraid to buy in bulk.  Sweet potatoes are at their cheapest around Thanksgiving.  Potatoes go on sale around St. Patrick's day.  But even in their off-season, both of these are cheap, versatile and filling.
  • Use potatoes in soup to add a creamy consistency.  The starchiness makes for a very filling soup without needing to add dairy (or as much dairy).  Try potato, broccoli and cheese, potato corn chowder or potato with sausage and kale.  
  • Sweet potatoes are amazing in chili.  I like to combine black beans with sweet potato or winter squash and chili spices for a hearty stew-like dish.  
  • Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are fast and nutritious.  A few minutes in the microwave is all you need.  Butter, salt and pepper make for a fast meal, or boost it up with some greens.  I like twice-baked potatoes stuffed with a slice of crumbled bacon, an ounce or so of cheese and a ton of kale, collard or spinach (you can also cram a ton of greens into mashed potatoes). 


Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse, and they're super versatile.  Organic cage-free eggs will run you $5/dozen, which for the money isn't terrible.  If you're in a bind, you can usually find factory-farmed eggs for under $2/dozen, and I won't tell on you.  Eggs will usually last about a month past their sell-by date, but sometimes they last a lot longer.  Check their freshness by placing them in a bowl of water -- the eggs that sink or stand on their end are safe to eat.  The ones that float have gone bad.
  • Make a quiche by mixing together eggs with a little bit of dairy and whatever else you have on hand, from potatoes to leftover meat to veggies.  You can make a simple pastry crust from flour, butter and water or just serve it crust-less.  
  • Scramble together eggs with whatever veggies you have on hand (I like kale and mushrooms) for a super-nutritious high-protein breakfast.  
  • Add an egg to your soup to boost its nutritional value.  You can make ramen noodles sexy by adding an egg and some greens -- just like traditional ramen in Japan.  Soft-boiled is my favorite, but hard-boiled, fried or poached all work just as well.  Runny yolk mixed into the broth makes for a super creamy texture.  Or, make a simple egg drop soup out of chicken broth (and a bit of sesame oil if you have it) and add in a beaten egg before taking it off the heat.  

Peanut Butter

Commercial peanut butter can last for up to a year in storage, and you can buy a huge tub of it for under $5.  Organic single-ingredient freshly-milled peanut butter is pricier and lasts just a few months, but it's still a very efficient use of your dollar.  Aside from sandwiches, peanut butter is a great protein source to beef up your meatless meals.
  • Make a simple Thai peanut sauce by thinning out peanut butter with a little bit of water and some siracha or  chili sauce.  Use this to coat noodles for a super simple dish that can be eaten hot or cold.  Add any veggies you can get your hands on to it for a nutritional boost. 
  • Use it to add depth and creaminess to soup.  There are actually a lot of soup recipes involving peanut butter and sweet potatoes!  Who knew?
  • Eat it on your pancakes or waffles, stuff it inside french toast or mix it into your oatmeal for a big flavor and protein boost that will keep you full without overloading on carbs at breakfast.  


There is no single ingredient more versatile or long-lasting than the dried bean.  You can find them for less than $1/lb, and a pound of dry beans can keep you fed for a week (around 6 cups of beans!)  For an easy no-fuss cooking method, soak them overnight in your crockpot. swap out the water (use it to water your house plants or garden) and cook them on low all day.  The finished beans can be stored in the fridge or frozen if you won't get to them that week.
  • Make chili.  You won't even notice that the beef is missing.  Just combine an onion, a cup of beans and three cans of tomato sauce with some chili spices (cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper) and leave it to simmer.  You can eat it as-is or served over rice, cornbread, potatoes or any other starch to spread it out.  
  • Smash them.  If the texture of whole beans is off-putting, mash them up.  Mashed garbanzo beans turn into a base for hummus.  Mashed pinto or black beans, combined with a bit of fat and maybe a little cheese, work just perfect as the filling of a burrito or served with some chips.  
  • Replace the meat in many of your favorite dishes. Making tacos?  Smash up about half the beans, leave the other half solid and mix up with a bit of salsa for a spicy filling (we do this with lentils and it's always a hit). 
With just a few other pantry essentials (flour, butter, milk, cheese, and any veggies you can afford), you can put together really simple, healthy meals based around these super cheap ingredients.   I believe in you! 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Would You Kill a Fly for $1,000?

So I missed my Critical Thinking Thursdays post.  I had planned to write something about us poor, mixed-up millennials and our troubles finding work, but my research for it started to make me depressed and angry so I stopped (although it's a subject I plan to return to when my head cools).  I've also been a little under the weather the last couple days, so I spent most of my time away from the computer yesterday and watched some movies instead.

I have a Halloween tradition that involves binge-watching horror movies all October long.  This year, it started a little bit early (and I am never more grateful toward Netflix than I am on days I just want to laze on the couch).

One of the movies I watched yesterday actually had an interesting premise from a non-consumer POV, in a roundabout way.  It was called 13 Sins, and it revolved around a clever premise: A down-on-his-luck guy receives a mysterious phone call from someone who knows all sorts of details about his life and says that he's been volunteered for a new type of game show.  All he has to do is complete 13 challenges, each one with a certain pay-out.  If he makes it to the end, he becomes a multi-millionaire.

The challenges start off pretty simple: First he has to kill a fly for $1,000.  Then he has to eat that fly, for $3,000.  But, predictably, the challenges start getting increasingly twisted, and our poor protagonist becomes trapped: Either he can keep completing the challenges (to win the money and see his name cleared) or he can stop (losing all the money and facing charges for all the illegal things he's done).

It's a pretty excellent metaphor for the rat race.  I won't tell you more in case you want to watch it, but I would love to hear your thoughts.  When is money worth the strings that come attached to it?  How far would you go to earn more money?  Or, how far would you go to avoid the rat race?  Much to think about.

You can find 13 Sins on Netflix or click the poster up there to get it on Amazon. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why Can't You Eat Food That's Been Left Out Overnight?

If you're anything like me, you may sometimes find yourself eyeballing a questionable food item, wondering whether it's safe to eat.  The idea of throwing out what might be perfectly good food is a hard one to swallow, especially if your grocery budget is tight.  On the other hand, the idea of being holed up with food poisoning isn't very appealing either. 

I've been deeply curious about food safety, and I wanted to lay some myths to rest once and for all.  So without further ado, here are some real answers about just how safe it really is to eat that pizza that was sitting on the counter all night.

What is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning is actually a catch-all term for the illness caused by eating any number of microorganisms dwelling in food.  The most common of these are e. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringen.  These pathogens spread in different ways and in different foods.
Symptoms of food poisoning will vary.  Depending on your immune system, you may not feel any effects at all, or you may get diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting or fever.  Severe cases can lead to kidney failure, liver damage, and even some neurological effects like meningitis.  So food poisoning runs the gamut, and people with reduced immunity -- the very young, the elderly, the chronically ill -- are at the highest risk.  

I personally have had food poisoning only once, and it was the product of some questionable chili mac at my campus eatery my freshman year of college.  Since then, I've eaten all sorts of foods in "the danger zone" without any ill effects.  It's quite possible that years of questionable eating habits have built up my natural immunity -- a real "chicken and egg" situation, really.

However, that doesn't mean that the foods I'm eating are safe.  Someone else could eat them and get sick.  And if I were in a position of feeding others, I'd have to be a whole lot more careful about what I was eating. 

Officially, any "high risk" foods need to be eaten or refrigerated within two hours.  If not, they'll need to be kept at a high enough temperature to inhibit bacteria growth (think the steam tables in a buffet). 

What foods are at the highest risk?  Mostly, moist foods -- things like soup, creamy salads and cooked vegetables or grains.  Basically anything that is damp or mushy invites a playground for bacteria, which like to live in damp, mushy, warm places.  Dry foods -- like jerky or bread -- don't invite bacterial growth because there's just nowhere for the bacteria to live; they need moisture.  That's why drying is such an effective food preservation tactic, by the way. 

Why Cooking or Freezing Food Doesn't Save Questionable Food

Here's the million dollar question: If cooking a food to a safe internal temperature or keeping it refrigerated will prevent foodborne illness, then why can't you just re-heat the food to kill off any bacteria that might be on it after being left out?

Say you made a pot of chicken noodle soup last night.  Everybody ate some, you put the lid back on the pot and then forgot to put it away until morning.  Is it safe to eat it?  What if you put it in the freezer?  What if you heated it back to a boil?  Surely that would kill the bacteria, right?

Here's the issue: While extreme heat or cold will indeed kill bacteria, it won't kill the toxins created by those bacteria.  And in the case of many foodborne pathogens like e. coli, it's the toxins emitted by the bacteria (not the bacteria themselves) that are making you sick.

Think about it this way.  Imagine that you went away for the weekend.  While you were gone, a bunch of rowdy teenagers used your house for a party, and made a huge mess.  You kick them out when you get home, but the mess is still all over your floor.  It's the same with that pot of chicken soup.  Bacteria are living organisms, and they produce waste just like we do.  It's their waste that no amount of cooking can get rid of.  

And just like your teenage kids that invited their friends over, the dangerous bacteria already live in your food.  They create spores (sort of like seeds) that linger around in food.  Unlike live bacteria, these spores do not get killed by freezing or boiling.  When the opportunity arises to grow and multiply (due to perfect temperature conditions), these spores will "hatch" bacteria.  And then the party begins. 

So Should You Eat the Food Left on the Counter? 

Eating food that's been left out is really a calculated risk.  Most of the microorganisms that cause food poisoning don't have any discernible effect on the food, so you won't notice a funky smell or odd taste.  And symptoms can take hours or days to kick in, so you may not realize right away that you've eaten something contaminated.

When assessing your contamination risk, you really have to look at a few factors:
  • Are you in generally good health with a healthy immune system? 
  • How many contaminants could the food have been subjected to? (the more ingredients in it, or the more people who have handled it, the more likely that it could have bacteria in it)
  • What is the makeup of the food?  (a sandwich made with a loaf of french bread and salami will probably last longer than one made of eggs and mayonnaise)
  • How was it stored out on the counter?  (was it covered? is your house clean?) 
From there, you'll have to decide for yourself how safe you feel eating the food left in the danger zone.  Everybody will draw their line somewhere.  Just realize that anything over two hours at room temperature is not considered safe from an official perspective.  

Further reading:
Food Safety Myths from the Department of Health
Your Food Safety Handbook from the USDA
Bending the Rules on Bacteria and Food Safety from the New York Times
I Forgot to Refrigerate Food.... from Still Tasty (an invaluable resource I use quite often)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blood Money: Donating Plasma as a Side Job

Today's "Frugality Friday" post is a little late.  It was hubby's birthday today so I've been away from the computer baking cake and hanging out. 


A lot of people these days are finding themselves strapped for cash.  If you're having trouble making ends meet and need some money fast, one of the easiest things you can do is donate plasma.  It's not exactly something you're probably eager to run out and do, but it's also not quite as scary as you might think, and there's a lot more people donating these days than just homeless folks and college students. 

What is Plasma Donation? 

Plasma is a fluid in your blood that occupies the space between your red and white blood cells.  It's used in all sorts of medicinal services, including treating burn victims and creating vaccines and medication.  The plasma you donate probably will not go directly to a patient the way a blood donation would, but it will be used for research or pharmaceutical development that could go toward saving lives.

The process of donating plasma is a little lengthier than blood donation, which is why they pay you for it.  It's not actually legal to buy bodily substances from people, but the donation center will reimburse you for the time it takes - usually an hour or so, plus the time it takes to get screened. 

To donate plasma, you will need to go to a plasma donation center and fill out an intake form.  This will ask about your medical history and habits and is used to ensure that your plasma is safe to use.  You'll also undergo a brief physical exam, simple blood test and urine test (to make sure you're not on drugs).  If you pass the tests, you'll go into a room where you'll be hooked up to a machine that will drain some blood, filter out the plasma, then pump your platelets back into you (this is the time-consuming part).

Who Can Donate Plasma?

For the most part, any healthy person over the age of 18 can donate plasma.  There are a few things that will disqualify you from donating:
  • Drug use
  • Insulin-dependent diabetes
  • Heart problems
  • A recent tattoo or piercing (due to hepatitis risk)
  • Having a low protein level (which is the point of the blood test)
  • Being under weight (I think the minimum weight is around 130)
The point of these regulations is to ensure that 1.) your plasma is safe to use and 2.) it will be safe for you to donate it.  

People who are caught lying on their paperwork will be banned from ever donating plasma again.  

How Much Money Can You Make? 

The exact compensation for plasma donation will vary from one center to the next.  In general, larger cities will have more competitive rates.  In my city, the first five donations earn $50 each.  After that, you can earn $60 per week -- $20 for the first donation and $40 for the second.  The amount you earn will depend in your weight (heavier people have more plasma so earn a couple dollars more).

You can donate plasma twice a week.  The amount of time it takes will depend on when you arrive (early morning is usually the best time to get through quickly).  Your first donation will take longer, maybe as long as three hours, because of all the processing.  After that, it should take no more than an hour or two.

So altogether, donating here will earn you about $250/month.  It'll be paid in either cash or loaded onto a prepaid Visa that you can use the same day as you donate.  It's not amazing money by any means, but per-hour it's better pay than a minimum wage job and it's something you can do immediately, making it an attractive option for someone who desperately needs money right now.  It's also a nice supplemental income that can be used to jump-start a savings account or give you a little bit of cushion.  If you spend your time at the donation center doing homework, filling out job applications, blogging on your laptop or whatever, you can maximize the efficiency to get the most out of it. 

Is Plasma Donation Safe?

Plasma donation is generally safe.  Donation sites have to follow strict sanitation standards, and all of the needles and tubing used for you will be hermetically sealed and opened in front of you.  The needle stays in your arm for the whole process, so there's very little risk of any sort of infection or contamination. 

The most common risk associated with plasma donation is feeling faint or woozy afterward.  You can mitigate this by taking care of yourself: Eat a big breakfast before you come in, focusing on protein (something like peanut butter, beans or eggs should do fine), and be sure to drink plenty of water before and after.  Staying well-hydrated will make the donation go by more quickly (since your blood will flow faster), and replenishing the lost fluid will prevent you from feeling ill afterward. 

You might feel a little tired after a donation, especially your second one in a week.  Taking an iron supplement should help.  You should not, however, be feeling particularly sick or anemic.  If you're having problems, talk to your doctor.  And if at any point during the donation itself you feel sick or faint, tell the technician working there so you can get help!

Also note that plasma plays a vital role in your immune system.  If you donate plasma regularly, you may find yourself having a weakened immune system.  Taking care of yourself in other ways can help offset these effects, but by all means give it a rest for a while if you start to get sick more often than usual.  

For more information...
Plasma Donation Information from the American Red Cross
Risks and Effects of Donating Plasma

Thursday, September 18, 2014

New Blogging Schedule!

So to keep things on track around here (and give y'all some powers of accountability) I've decided I'm going to start sticking to a regular blogging schedule.  Three times a week, expect posts on these exciting themes: 

Meal-Planning Mondays:
Featuring (obviously) meal plans, but also recipes, grocery deals and general shopping tips.  Basically, if it has to do with food, it's going to be posted on Monday. 

Critical-Thinking Thursdays: 
Looking at big issues and discussing solutions.  This is the day all of the social awareness posts will be made.

Frugality Fridays: 
Tips on saving money on every non-food aspect of your life.  Expect any money-saving posts to happen here, whether they're tips or a check-in with how I'm doing things at my own house!

The Month in Reviews
Toward the end of the month, I'll post a review of a book, documentary or other media that's related to the site's theme! 

To keep everything organized, all of these topics will be tagged, allowing you to instantly browse through the categories at your convenience.  I hope you all find this change to be enriching and helpful! 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Quit Your Day Job: Now Available for Pre-Order

On a regular basis, someone will ask me, "Tiana, how do you do what you do?"  "How did you get started freelancing?"  "How can I make money online?"

There are a lot of people out there who can't find traditional work and are eager to find a solution that they can start doing TODAY to make money to sustain themselves.  There are a lot of people who are trapped in jobs they hate and would kill for the freedom to work for themselves instead, even if it meant a loss of income.  There are people who have always dreamed of being professional writers but haven't got a clue how to get started. 

If you're one of those people, this is a book for you. 


I wrote this guide to be brief, to-the-point and filled with as much information as I can possibly cram into it.  This is an actionable plan for exactly how to do what I do.  It draws on my experience in the field as well as the input of other writers. 

It's currently available for pre-order at a special reduced price of 99 cents.  If you buy it today, it'll deliver to your device automatically on October 1.  Once October rolls around, the price will go up, so grab the book now! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

What's for Dinner: Singapore Noodles

As you might recall, our last grocery shopping trip left us with an epic ton of rice noodles.  We had already eaten some stir-fry over noodles and some rice noodle soup (inspired by pho), but we wanted to try something a little different.  So when David found a recipe for Singapore noodles, I knew what I had to try for dinner. 

Singapore noodles are a popular dish in Chinese restaurants, both in America and in China.  Curiously, they're not popular in Singapore.  Go figure. 

Basically, Singapore noodles are stir-fried rice noodles mixed with various ingredients -- the exact mix is up to you, but the key ingredient is curry powder.  This hint of Indian seasoning gives it some kick and a lot of personality. 

I followed the recipe linked above except I made it on the stovetop, sauteeing the vegetables until soft and adding lots of liquid to aid in cooking/prevent sticking (this created sort of a saucy base).  I added my noodles directly to that, added the spices (I used garam masala for the curry powder), stirred it all together and let it sit to soak up the sauce.  Then I garnished with green onions. 

Overall, it turned out pretty delicious.  It was very spicy!  In the future, I think I would make the sauce thicker and pour it over a noodle base rather than mixing it all together.  Traditionally, this can be served with any number of meats, and I personally think it would be perfect with shrimp.