See, I, like many other kids I know who grew up in the 80's remember our families being broke. Then when my parents got divorced and my mom became a single mom raising four kids, I thought I knew what it was to be broke. And then I got married and my husband got really sick our first year of marriage, which blew through our savings and I thought I knew what it was to be REALLY broke there for a long while.
And then this last couple of years happened and I started to realize something. Back then I knew what it was to be broke, but I didn't know what it was to be broke well. I was arrogant and assumed I knew how to be broke and do it well. I know that is about as clear as mud, but allow me to elaborate.
See, back throughout my life I've had to live without much to live on, sure, but I just kind of hit survival mode and went with it, waiting for the monetary light at the end of the tunnel. A new job to see us through a rough patch of not having money (which until I had kids I always managed to find), shopping with coupons to their fullest extent (heck I even ran a coupon BLOG for a few years!) and getting groceries for free or near free, getting a tax refund...something was always on the horizon that I just lived to get to, to get us through our monetary troubles.
The last couple of years though things changed. I can't get a job right now with two kids in two schools, my son in therapy multiple times per week and with health issues such as allergies that I have to worry about. Coupons kind of dried up years ago, sadly, when manufacturers saw the show "Extreme Couponing" and went ballistic (that and the economy taking a nose dive). Tax refunds...well you only get a good tax refund if you make a decent amount of money in a year and well...two out of three years we didn't.
So, I had to start tapping reserves I didn't know I had. I started coming into my own as a serious prudent homemaker and started realizing that when you are seriously broke/poor the more you are expected to do to save money the more you find you CAN do. And I started to realize that while we might not be able to afford some of the luxuries others could, trying to keep up with what the neighbors were doing wasn't going to make us any happier with our lives. So, I started to live well within the means we have and I find myself much happier for it. Sure I still sweat about bills and have a panic attack at the price of beef, but I can still make chicken for the fourth time in a week and not dread eating it!
So, I thought I'd share with you a few of the lessons I've learned from being broke to hopefully, maybe, give you some inspiration to make your lives a bit brighter no matter your monetary lot in life.
And today's lesson is this: Don't Be Afraid to Glamorize
I, like many others get into a culinary rut from time to time. Ironically, my husband has found that I was in the worst ruts with cooking when we were making decent money. I mean, heck, it really doesn't take a lot of creativity to dress up a steak and baked potato for dinner, so I never tried.
Now when you are looking into your pantry and seeing cans of chicken and other canned goods and trying to figure out how to stretch that into various meals because your monthly food budget went down like the Hindenburg due to some curve ball, you start to come into some creativity on the culinary front.
So, the next time you are staring at a plate of meatloaf for the third time in a week that isn't so much meat loaf as cracker/bread loaf with a bit of meat added for color and flavor, here's some suggestions to try and put a happy spark into your life by "glamorizing" the meal.
I got turned onto this by reading vintage cookbooks and blogs about mid-century lifestyles. Glamorizing was a huge deal in the 1950's. Looking back at vintage cookbooks you'll see loads of recipes from the 40's and 50's with maraschino cherries on top of desserts, parsley garnishes on things that sometimes don't even make sense, radish blossoms on top of salads and other little touches to the meal. Some of this was to just dress up meals that were still pretty monotonous and basic as after WWII there was a global shortage of different food items, so families tried to dress up what they could afford to put on the table. But there was also a feeling of celebration to the meals as things like rationing came to an end, WWII was over and the future was looking bright again.
Just so you know, these tips are going to be more of a "modern" touch on this as while I love maraschino cherries from time to time what the food dye does to tablecloths? With my kids? Yeah, that doesn't happen at all often *laugh*.
These tips won't only spiff up your dinner table, but also will save you money, really in the long run.
1. Go for cloth tablecloths as much as possible.
I ditched cheap vinyl tablecloths a long time ago just because I got tired of my kitchen table looking like a picnic table (I do, though, keep a layer of clear vinyl on my wooden table at ALL TIMES underneath my cloth tablecloths to protect my table. I like my table and my kids trash it on a regular basis, so I found this to be the best way to protect the poor thing). I've found, though that cloth tablecloths also have a lot of advantages.2. If you want to glamorize an average table, get cloth napkins.
For one, you can get them CHEAP at the used stores if you are willing to keep an eye out and look. I don't pay more than 3.00 for a tablecloth. Period. If you can't find them cheap at a local used store, buy a sheet cheap at a yard sale or at the used store and make a tablecloth out of that. If you aren't talented at sewing, you can get some heat bond tape to seal the edge instead of sewing it or something (just look up "no sew tablecloths" on your favorite search engine. I'm sure they are out there). I love being able to trade out tablecloths when I want a new look on the table and if I really want to switch it up now a days I just make a table runner and voila! Fancy!
On average I change my tablecloth about three times a week. And I've had my current store of tablecloths (with the exception of the white ones I made recently) an average of three years (some longer). For 2.00 per tablecloth I'd say that's pretty cost effective!
Nothing speaks glamour for kids like putting a cloth napkin by their plate like in a fancy restaurant. My daughter still gets a huge kick out of it. If you want to go really fancy, put the napkin in a napkin ring (and remember, you can make napkin rings out of plastic screening or other materials...check out Pinterest for ideas).3. Don't be afraid to invest in some "fancy" dishes.
The nice part about cloth napkins, too, is that you can reuse them over and over again. Since starting to use cloth napkins my paper towel consumption has gone WAY down compared to what we used to use. I either make my own cloth napkins out of fabric scraps I get from the used store, or I buy them at the used stores when I can find them cheap (like I just got some for .25 a piece yesterday at one local used store). Check local Facebook yard sale pages or Craigslist for fabric as well as sometimes you can get fabric for even free when someone is just trying to clear some old store out.
I am ashamed to admit that it took me until just recently to realize the power of a "fancy" dish could make when getting my daughter to eat her dinner.4. Put your food on serving dishes instead of just putting the pot down on the table.
I stared at the dessert dishes/sundae cups seen in the picture above at the used store for WEEKS (I kid you not) until I finally decided to take the plunge and bought the four of them they had for .50 a piece. I've been serving the same desserts I always do of different flavors of jello or pudding or some other simple fare in those cups instead of just a regular opaque dish and suddenly with her own special portion in front of her in a special dish, my daughter will do things like eat all of her dinner, including vegetables, so she can have her "treat" at the end of a meal.
Honestly, I smile every time I use them too. It's kind of fun to make dessert just a bit more special with those little dishes. I'm very glad I bought them.
This I started to avoid ending up in a burn ward with my son, who doesn't get the whole "hot" concept consistently yet, or my daughter who can get into trouble when she doesn't pay attention to what she's doing. So, I starting placing food in other dishes to serve at the table and it really does up the meal from, "Here's your food" to something a bit more personal somehow.5. If you have garnish, use it!
Now, don't think you have to get super fancy with your serving dishes. The vegetables I serve at the table are most times served in a standard cereal bowl. I do have two platters I have bought at the used store throughout the years I try to serve meat on, but if I don't feel like putting a big plate on the table (we have kind of a small table without the leaves in it) I'll just use a dinner plate and put the meat on that. It works just as well and allows everyone to see what they are going to eat.
Some things like enchiladas or casserole, of course I serve directly out of the baking pan at the table, but when it comes to other more "piece mail" types of dinners, I do try to serve out of dishes instead.
If you have a parsley plant that grows in your kitchen or some herbs in your fridge that aren't being used how about making your meal a bit more fancy by using some garnish? There's a reason restaurants do it. It just kind of makes the meal feel special.If there is one lesson I've learned in the kitchen, though is this...
Even if you don't have herbs, you could dress up the meal with some little food types of touches. For instance, if I add a dollop of Dream Whip to the top of jello? I think my daughter might try liver and onions to get to that treat (my husband and I both hate liver and onions, so luckily she dodged that bullet). She loves "cream" on top of pretty much any dessert, as do most kids, so it's something to think about. Even just taking some stale bread to make croutons one night might just elevate your dinner to the next level.
6. HAVE FUN!
I really have found that I can seriously have fun trying to think of different ways I can dress up a can of chicken, some leftover pork or some droopy carrots. Try to make it into the "no waste" game instead of staring at the measly choices you have and getting depressed. It'll at least improve your mood and when you cook happy, I honestly believe your family will eat happier for it.Enjoy life all! No one else can do it for you!
When you get depressed at all aspects of cooking and it becomes just another chore to dread, it really takes a good hunk of potential joy you could find in homemaking. So, I do encourage you to try and have fun. Go and get a few new plates to dress up the table at a used store. Make a new pretty hotplate to put under your beat up old loaf pan with your meatloaf at dinner. Crush up the remains of the cereal in the bottom of the bag and happily toss them onto the top of a casserole for a new layer of texture to the tuna casserole you've been staring at too much. Make some cloth napkins out of an old sheet and pinking shear the edge if you don't have time to sew them. Just do SOMETHING new to break out of the "we're broke" mindset. If nothing else it might just help you find some joy in being broke instead of wishing for things you can't have.