Springs Preserve Bet on the Farm Farmers Market

Each Thursday at the Springs Preserve you can attend the free Bet on the Farm Farmers Market.  We finally had the chance to make our way up there, though I did not want to wrangle the proper camera since it was just the kids and me so these cell phone shots will have to suffice.  It is indoor which makes sense but you do lose a little of that farmers market feel until you explore the produce!  Below you’ll see the Desert Living Center which is where the market is usually held.

I thought there would be more local offerings but one vendor made the great point that some people expect to find out of season veggies and fruits so why not let the Californians offer them and bring people out to the farmers market in the hopes that they also get some local goodies at the same time.

E’s favorite thing was seeing the different colors of cauliflower – my kids love roasted cauliflower (we use a version of this recipe at 101 cookbooks).

I’ll admit to getting some sticker shock at some of the prices but if you usually buy organic it is understandable.  The non-local items I bought were a cucumber that sadly was rotten when I got it home and some jerusalem artichokes that I roasted and were interesting but not as amazing as I’d heard they’d be.  The local cabbage and fresh dill weed were great, however!  The woman that sold the cabbage let me try some other greens that convinced me to plant some winter greens this year, they were lovely.  Another woman offered me some small fresh turnips to try after selling the dill and they were tempting but I’d already spent about $15.  I do believe in supporting local options when I can so you should totally check out the market but seek out the truly local vendor tables and treat yourself.

As I’ve previously posted, after checking out the market we made our way across the open auditorium (picture above) to the play area.  The Farmers Market is usually every Thursday from 10am to 3pm, check this calendar for details.

From the Inside Looking Out

Recently a comment I made about how being a food allergy parent seems from the outside (I know I look like a “helicopter mom” to others) contributed to a post by Asha Dornfest on her Babble Voices blog “The Accidental Expert” – feel free to check it out: When your “balance” looks different

I think this passage in particular is applicable to both the food allergy parent and the veg parent in me:

To the naysayers, experts, and well-meaning people who still think we’re nuts: we appreciate your opinions. They help us clarify our own. We know you mean well, but you’re only seeing part of the picture.

Here’s what would help more than your judgement: your confidence in us as intelligent, conscientious parents. We don’t need your agreement. We need your support. Your continued honesty and friendship. Your willingness to keep talking.

But in the end we will always declare: we know our families best.

I was talking with a friend on Twitter (she runs the website Multiple Food Allergy Help) last month and she had written that her son was distraught over a karate teacher telling students they need to go without sugar for 7 days as that meant he couldn’t eat one of the treats that was safe for him: pop tarts.  (Sources: 1, 2, 3)  It is a perfect example of someone on the outside not getting the unique circumstances of a family.  In this particular instance it made a sweet little boy feel bad about what he could safely eat.

Ages ago (okay, two years ago) I read a post called “When Clueless People Attack” by Amy Corbett Storch that really stuck with me.  In it she describes how people judge parents for putting their “older” children in strollers.  For, say, an autistic child, it just might be the only way their parent can keep them from running into the street or out of a store.  There’s no way to know, especially from what is just a momentary interaction.  Now, if you see something that raises your concern, like child abuse or the like, then of course that is a different situation but as far as choices like what treat my child gets or whether someone else’s little one has a pacifier in their mouth it is best not to judge.

On the flip side there is my internal dialogue, the one that looks at what other moms are doing and thinks I am not nearly that fabulous.  If that is also something you struggle with, Jessica at VegBooks.org shared this article with me and it made the great point that “Your Children Want You.”  So even though I am probably my own worst critic (who doesn’t worry when all their child wants for dinner is the same thing they had for lunch and for dinner the night before?) I am doing my best and hope you are getting the support you need to do your best as well.

 

Heritage Park by the Las Vegas Natural History Museum

This is one of the nicer parks in the City of Las Vegas, they keep it gated and individuals without children under the age of 12 with them are not permitted on park grounds.  The best part is that it is adjacent to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.  The official site that I linked to above doesn’t have many photos so here are some I snapped on a recent visit.  I was downtown for a meeting about my new job so I don’t recommend scaling the playground equipment in heels!

Covered playground, as is the norm in Las Vegas.  Oddly enough there’s never shade in the right spot but at least they’re trying, right?

In this shot you can see the Las Vegas Natural History Museum’s sea life mural.  So half the museum is into the gated area and half is out of the gated area of the park.

A closer shot of the play area, some pretty good little slides mixed with bigger ones.

My kids especially like the little sand diggers as well as the dinos and gorillas you can attempt to scale.  Neat tie in with the museum, I think!  Also, in the distance here you can see across the street where the Lied Children’s Discovery Museum which is soon to move to the Smith Center at Symphony Park sometime later this year!

A closer look at the sign detailing the ages that are welcome at the park.  When we meet my husband for picnics he waits outside usually until we’re all there.

The park is very nice and the grounds are well kept with many covered areas with picnic benches – I think the idea is that the field trip crowd will get to use the area since the museum itself has a very small break room with just a table or two.  One of the more recent visits we made to the park ended with an early exit as kids were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while playing on the equipment instead of using the picnic areas.  I just can’t take the risk of reactions when nut butters are near, present, and getting smeared everywhere.  Not that I mind them being at the park, I just think food and playground equipment don’t mix!

Where Does Your Money Go? – Family Budgeting

Sometimes I read articles about how to save money and shake my head.  I don’t have a daily coffee habit I can cut and I don’t pay for magazine subscriptions (not that magazines with money saving tips ever suggest this one!).  Then with food allergy specialty items forget about cutting options there.  What has worked for us is tracking our expenses meticulously.  Not hard once it becomes routine and once the picture of your spending emerges you can see where you really can cut and make changes.  My husband (you can read his previous guest posts about putting in our laminate flooring and comparing our Subaru Outback to our Honda Pilot) explains our approach below.  We’ve also got our spreadsheet template as a free download if you’d like to give it a try.  The whole idea of this blog is to contribute to the hive mind of the internet so do let us know if you find this helpful!

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My wonderful mother raised my sister and me on a teacher’s salary, largely unaided.  Things were tight early on after my dad left, especially in the summer months when the work didn’t pay as well.  By the time I was out of college she’d racked up over $20,000 in credit card bills.  She called it “creative financing.”  There was always a new credit card offer in the mail with zero percent interest for 6 months or a year (this was back when transfer fees were capped!).  She’d move all the debt to a new card or cards and gain enough breathing room to keep us afloat for another year.  Now, to be clear, we did not live extravagantly and payments were never late.  The cars were old.  We ate a lot of cabbage and potato soup.  Luxury meant a new tie for eighth-grade graduation.  Her problem was not an abundance of lifestyle but an absence of income.  Things got better through the years for various reasons.

I’m not trying for sympathy; she did what had to be done and it all worked out in the end.  However, by the time I graduated college and long after the thinnest years, having credit card debt was just something she accepted.  I asked what we could do about the debt.  Offering to help however I could, I asked her where the money was going.  What can we do to pay off this debt?  Well, she said, the money was gone every month. Nothing you could do about that, right?  I asked where the money was going and actually wrote down her answers.  She was literally surprised, after picking her brain for every possible expense, that several hundred dollars were unaccounted for each month.  So, from that day forward, the credit card bills became the priority and disappeared entirely in just over two years.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that I took over utility payments during that time and probably helped shave a year off the schedule.  Ever since then I’ve kept track of my own spending in one way or another.  Now, it’s practically a hobby.

The focus of this post is two-fold.  First, to explain and offer for your use, free of charge and free for distribution with credit, the spreadsheet I use to keep us in the black.  Second, I’ll try to sneak in some budgeting tips and information about alternative budgeting tools.  I’ve been using this spreadsheet for several years.  I am very dedicated to tracking our spending and without such dedication I should suggest that you look elsewhere.  I like to know the details and insist on having real numbers to work with.  To achieve this end, I manually enter nearly every day-to-day financial transaction we make!  A lot of fixed expenses are calculated automatically, but gasoline, diapers, and food, as examples, must be entered on a daily basis.  However, I agree with many budgeting sites that suggest – at a minimum – to track spending for a few months so you have firm numbers to work with.  So, even if you’re afraid you won’t be able to keep it up, try this for a month or two and see what you think.  It becomes second nature to sit down when you get home and spend two or three minutes entering the day’s receipts.  Using a credit or debit card also helps because you can check for missed entries.

If you’re the “big picture” sort or simply can’t spare the time for daily updates, I suggest trying an online bank aggregator site like Mint.com.  Some banks offer similar services.  Bank of America, for example, has MyPortfolio which I actually use in addition to my own spreadsheet.  The gist of these aggregators is that they allow you to look at all of your bank accounts in one spot, including car loans, student loans, mortgage(s), credit cards, investment accounts, etc.  The good ones also allow you to manually enter cash transactions and will keep track of the value you assign to your house and cars, as well as other physical property if you like.

The other, other option is a software product like Quicken (amazon affiliate link).  I have never had any luck with these because I have not found that they can be personalized enough.  However, because I gave up trying dedicated software almost a decade ago, I am no longer in a position to pass judgment.

My final opening note is that I am far from an expert spreadsheet maker.  The attached sheet, combined with my “net worth” tracking sheet do everything I need them to do.  It has shortcomings, or course.  For example, I don’t account for the value of my cars and house becuase I’m more interested in using this particular sheet for cash flow.  Flaws aside, perhaps it will give you a starting point to build on.  That’s the great part about using a spreadsheet.  You can customize it exactly as you like and the internet has a wealth of information if you need complicated formulas.  We use Open Office which I highly suggest, though I’ve made the sheet available as an Excel document (Expense Tracking).  Open Office is a completely free office suite.

EXPENSE TRACKING

My underlying theme in tracking our expenses is to convert everything to average monthly expenses. The averages, over time, have proven to present a very accurate picture of our finances.  For example, if the averages tell me we’ll have $100 left at the end of every month it’s usually pretty close.  Of course, gratefully, we have a little wiggle room in the budget.  We can absorb a $300 electricity bill in the summer and wait for the $100 winter bill to average it out.  Large yearly or bi-yearly expenses also aren’t a big problem.  We can pay for car insurance twice a year and not break the bank, having anticipated the expense.

Over time, if you spend according to your average expenses you should have savings to cover that occasional high bill.  As always, you must have some savings.  One month’s expenses should be an absolute minimum.  I hear far too many people say they can’t save any money.  Certainly this is true for some families, but most people have room in their budget for savings.  However, you must know where your money is going if you have any hope of accumulating savings.  That’s where expense tracking comes in.

BUDGET TAB

This is where the action is.  I can look at this sheet and determine exactly how we’re doing.  I also spend a bit of time here double-checking our fixed expenses.  There is no reason, for example, to plug in your cell phone bill every month.  This is a relatively fixed expense that you can count on each month.  However, if you get a new plan you may need to adjust the monthly amount, so don’t forget to check every now and then.

Over the years I have also put in a few calculations to help me instantly convert regularly irregular expenses to monthly numbers.  Car insurance is one example becasue it seems to go up every year until I threaten to move my business and it goes back down.  Whenever I “write a check” for insurance I plug in that amount and the monthly expense is populated.

MONTHLY TAB

Each month gets its own sheet.  I have been using the categories included for as long as I’ve been using the sheet and they have worked for me.  You can use whatever categories you like.  I use them roughly as follows.  “Food” is for grocery shopping only.  I don’t include anything I don’t need to live like soda or dining out.  “Home” is for repair costs as well as general household supplies like paper towels and laundry detergent. I’ll also put household tools in this category.  “Cars” is for nearly anything related to the vehicles, including gas, repair costs, smog checks, washes, and the like.  Anything not already listed as a recurring expense like insurance, that is.  “Baby,” which I’m actually phasing out and plan to replace in the near future is for things that only a baby would need, like diapers and immunizations.  I’ve never liked that category and intend to replace it as soon as I think of something better.  “Personal” is for hair cuts, clothing, personal care products, shampoo, etc.  The “Other” category is for things I simply cannot put in another category.  It is a small category for me and actually averages out as a negative right now because I’ll include cash back from credit cards and other irregular income I can’t peg to a particular expense.  One other example of “other” would be if I had to pay for parking, which is very unusual in Las Vegas, and isn’t exactly what I consider a “car” expense (due to it’s rarity).  As another example, I picked up an inexpensive prescription for my mother one day not expecting or receiving reimbursement.  I didn’t want to put it in the “health” category because it would skew, by whatever small amount, the true cost of my family’s health care.  So, that went in “other.”

“Luxury” is anything I don’t need to lead a reasonable existence.  Obviously some “luxuries” make life more enjoyable, but spending must have a place among the categories and I’ve cast a wide net for the Luxury category.  Don’t try to cut expenses by eliminating everything fun.  That plan will last about as long as only eating beans three times a day.  Fatigue sets in and you fall back further than you were in the first place.  I include in “Luxury” meals out, toys for the kids, alcohol, all gifts, music and books, vacations, etc.

My goal is not to individually track spending at each merchant or for each product name, but to have general-enough categories that I can get an idea of where we’re spending and over-spending.  Keep in mind that it does not matter what categories you employ or what items you put in each category.  It is important, however, that you remain consistent.  I have found that having fewer broad categories is the best way to go.  I personally also break down multi-category receipts.  So if I shop at Costco and buy diapers, broccoli, and a new shirt, I’ll break those expenses out to three separate categories.  But, you could probably just plug the entire amount into the category you spent the most on and it will be close enough over time.

AVERAGES TAB

This tab is entirely populated by each month’s tab.  It is a quick way to see trends in spending.  If you have an unusually high or low month, it may be worth checking that month against other months to see exactly where the discrepancy lies.  If “house” has been unusually high for two months in a row, I’ll go back to see where the money went, and make it a point to reduce such spending for a few months until things even back out.

I also only use about one year’s expenses for the average that transfers to the Budget sheet.  I’ve been spending less and less on baby and more and more on food, for example, so knowing what I spent on “baby” two years ago isn’t that helpful.  If anyone actually gets to the one-year mark I’ll happily provide instructions for adding new monthly sheets and modifying which months to use for the Averages tab.

CONCLUSION

I hope you’ll have a go at budgeting, or as I more accurately call what I do, expense tracking.  I suspect that for many people who are already conscientious about their spending, a full picture of where your money is going will result in some ‘found” money.  For me it’s about avoiding surprises every month.  If that food category is growing faster than expected, we keep it in mind when shopping next time.

Thanks for reading.

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Here’s is the link to download the spreadsheet my husband detailed above, just right click and select “save link as:” Expense Tracking

Allergy Friendly Thin Mints

I have been hunting for the ingredients for this recipe for Allergy Free Thin Mints since it first went online but could not find the Hershey’s “Special Dark” Cocoa anywhere.  I tried all over town and finally turned to the internet website Soap.com.  Oddly enough, it is really a site by Amazon but the prices are different and the promotions are different as well.  If you can’t find the cocoa you can go here and feel free to use the coupon code ADAM5809 if you are a first time user, it should give you 20% off your order.  Per their order confirmation email to us it says that if you use the code it also donates $25 to the FEED foundation (details about the refer a friend program here).  I am not compensated in any way for this, I just know I was glad to find the cocoa at a reasonable price.

Back to these cookies.  The minty chocolate is so very good and one of my favorite flavor combos.  These are spot on and worth the effort!

I had to include this picture because the kids and I had fun using some scraps and the veggie cutters I bought for this recipe, to make veggie shaped chocolate wafer cookies.  I think the little artichoke is so adorable!

Here’s the finished product.  They are kind of melty so you’ll want to store them in the freezer.  Also, the recipe calls for about two bags of chocolate chips to melt for coating the cookies but I got away with halving the coating recipe.  I figured the wafers were tasty on their own and I couldn’t justify using all that pricey chocolate at once.  I may have made a few of the wafers too thick and though they were still good they weren’t as crunchy so be sure to really roll your dough out to 1/8 of an inch for the right crispiness.

Vegan and Gluten Free Chocolate Pudding Pie

Over two years ago when we tested E for her allergies at the allergist (post blood test, this was the prick test to confirm the blood test results) he gave us three allergens to challenge at home: milk, soy, and corn.  I don’t know why he decided that, looking at her paperwork I think it was because the reactions (and there were reactions) registered low enough to warrant a confirmation via what is considered the “gold standard” of tests.  We bought some organic sprouted corn tortillas and gave her a bite.  Fairly instant rashy cheeks were the result.  Corn is hard to avoid and as it is not one of the top 8 allergens, there are no obligations for manufacturers to label with corn allergies in mind.  Xanthan gum, a common thickener to mimic gluten in allergy friendly foods, often is corn derived so we had to avoid a lot of things that would otherwise be safe.  So there was an incentive to see how E handled those things now that she was old enough to really communicate with us how she felt when she ate things that contained it.

We tried her with the soy free vegan cheese substitute Daiya with great success and started to debate trying the same corn tortillas.  Not only did she love the tortillas, she didn’t react the way she did before.  So far, so good.  Now, it is hard to know what has changed or if we are in the clear on the subject of corn but other food allergy families will understand that the potential of a world of food possibilities to diversify what we eat is tantalizing.  I was able to make this recipe from the Allergen Free Baker’s Handbook by Cybele Pascal (amazon affiliate link) as it required cornstarch and tapioca or arrowroot starch never quite could cut it where cornstarch was in a recipe.

The recipe turned out amazingly!  It reminded me of the pudding pies we had when I was a kid.  I may have served it for breakfast one morning (I was reminded of this snippet from Bill Cosby wherein he serves chocolate cake to his children for breakfast, it is about 9 minutes long but I love it).  Other recipes we’ve tried and loved that aren’t corn free are:

Potato Leek Kugel (you can make it without the Daiya though, have already made it twice – yum!)

Allergy-Free Mac and Cheese (I pointed a fellow food allergy mama to this and her family loved it too!)

Allergy-Free Broccoli Cheddar Soup (My husband really enjoyed this one, we use vegetable broth of course as the base and it freezes well)

Vegan and Gluten Free Cornbread (you can substitute agave nectar for honey of course)

Here’s one I have yet to try but want to:

Allergy-Free Cheddar Crackers

And here’s our very first convenience cookie purchase:

Enjoy Life Crunchy Sugar Crisp Cookies (amazon affiliate link – a great deal if you do subscribe & save) (a lot of their other cookies have grape in them so they’re not safe still but the only issue in these was xanthan gum)

I will keep using my corn free options for baking powder, powdered sugar, and even my corn free xanthan gum for baking – I don’t want to cycle too much corn into the house if we have to backtrack all of a sudden.  I normally would say giving your child an allergenic food is not worth the risk but then again, if they’ve potentially grown out of it a lot can open up for them in a restricted diet.  I am not a medical professional and the choices I make and that my family makes may not be what is best for your family.  Also, a “mild” reaction can always possibly turn into a life-threatening one so keep carrying those Epi-Pens and be vigilant.

“Freeburgers” from Quick-Fix Vegan by Robin Robertson

Thanks to a tip from Adrienne over at Baby Toolkit, I got in touch with a publisher about obtaining a review copy of a new allergy friendly cookbook.  Not only did they send along the book I was interested in reviewing, they sent over some vegan and vegetarian cookbooks as well!  I also received two kids books to review for Veg Books from another publisher (those are the two on top of the stack).  I have not checked out many cookbooks from the veg genre of late because when you are cooking with food allergies you can only go through so many books that are all tempeh, seitan, and soy all the time.  I have been missing out!  I spent at least an hour going through the books page by page and marking recipe after recipe that are either “safe” for us or that can be safe with minor adjustments.

I love that many of these vegan cookbooks avoid too much soy and even gluten in favor of other natural ingredients.  I know they don’t have food allergy folks in mind but I felt like many of the recipes spoke directly to our needs.  Take these “Freeburgers” from page 109 Quick-Fix Vegan by Robin Robertson (amazon affiliate link).   These hold together wonderfully and were easy to throw together.  Whirl the ingredients in your food processor or blender, make patties, and bake for 20 minutes (flipping mid-way).  Best of all, R and E gobbled them up and they held together wonderfully.  The photo above is of the patties before they went into the oven.  I will be able to save so much by not having to buy Sunshine Burgers (they are pricey and not as good as this recipe).

The substitutions I made were minor, I used leeks instead of scallions (I had no scallions on hand) and instead of the walnuts the recipe called for I used sunflower seeds in an equal proportion.  Wonderful.  In the photo above I put the cooked burger on allergen-free rice bread with mustard (I found a pre-made mustard that uses cider vinegar so it is safe for us), soy-free mayo, spinach, and sweet gluten free pickles.

I also made my own vegetable stock using scraps I have been saving from the freezer and the guidance of a recipe in this book.  I had never done that before, it was pretty cool to have a use for those veggies and then still be able to put what I strained to make the broth into the compost.

Other recipes I can’t wait to try from the book include: shortcut mushroom-artichoke risotto, coconut-curry chickpeas and cauliflower, roasted asparagus soup, curried cauliflower soup with roasted cauliflower “rice,” spicy red bean slaw, indian shepherd’s pie, moroccan pumpkin hummus, artichoke and bell pepper tapenade, jerk-spiced kale crisps, and smoky chipotle-chocolate chili.  The book is a great price on amazon right now, less than $10 (amazon affiliate link).  I will post more photos as I make the different recipes but so far I can say it is really a worthwhile cookbook.  Much like another favorite of mine, there are no interior photos but the descriptions of the recipes draw you in.