Simple meals for kids to cook

We feel like it is important for our kids to be able to cook a few meals on their own before they leave our house for good.  Ideally they will also know how to follow a cookbook, but being able to do a few simple meals from scratch (or with a box) without needing access to the internet or an actual cookbook is a helpful skill that should be useful in all sorts of situations.

What are some of these meals they can and should be able to do?

Our kids can both do:
1. scrambled eggs
2. quesadillas/tacos
3. grilled cheese
4. macaroni and cheese from a box with tuna and peas
5. cold cereal
6. salad

I really ought to teach them how to do spaghetti with meat sauce and onions sometime soon.  If either of them liked chili, that would also be on my list.

My memorized repertoire when I left home also included (along with all of the above): fry-ups, swiss steak, chicken cacciatore, salad dressing baked chicken, and leek and potato soup.  I could also do random things with lipton onions soup packets and cans of various campbells soups.  I haven’t made most of these in years either because they’re not healthy with my PCOS or because the children aren’t crazy about them.

DC1 has been preferring to make desserts from cookbooks.  Along with that, most kids seem to like making cookies.  Although I have some desserts memorized (ex. dump cake), I don’t really have any worth making memorized, so we use recipes.

What simple meals did you make as a kid?  What do your kids make, if applicable?  What other meals do you recommend kids learn how to do before they leave home?

 

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Obnoxious whine: I’m tired of the food options in my town

This is truly an obnoxious whine.  See, back when we lived in places with amazing food options we had no money.  Now that we have money…

I live in a small college town that has had some recent growth.  Usually in the summer a number of college student places go out of business and a number of new places move in to replace them.

This year instead of getting interesting new places, we’ve been getting places that are either literally or essentially duplicates of places we already have.  We do not need yet another cheap wood-fired pizza place in town, yet this summer we got three of them.  We do not need another crappy Thai place, but this summer a couple sprang up.  (These things seem to go in cycles– when I got here we had a bunch of great Vietnamese places and the one Thai place in town had gone out of business the year before– now all the Vietnamese places have been replaced with sushi of varying quality and we have an overabundance of mediocre Thai.)  We even got a second really mediocre poke place (I did not realize mediocre poke existed until we had some in our town– I think it’s just not the right demographics to support a decent poke place… students prefer cheap), though I suspect that now there are two they will both go out of business.

So what’s left are places that are so meh that we don’t particularly want to go there again, or good places that we’re kind of sick of.  (In the case of super fancy restaurants, only I have had the chance to have gotten sick of their menus– I was on two search committees last year and really do not need to go to the fancy restaurants in town again any time soon.  Even these are kind of repetitive in terms of menu options.)

The way work is for both of us this year, we have a lot of disposable income, but less time than usual.  It would be nice to have a list of places we wanted to try or places that we like but aren’t tired of.  But we don’t.  So we waste time trying to figure out where to eat and finally decide we might as well just make something instead.

Now, our kids would be perfectly happy if we went to the burger place once a week and our favorite pizza place once a week and the hand pulled noodle place once a week and pei wei (never mind—pei wei just shut down) once a week and so on.  But DH and I have just gotten bored of their limited menus, along with those at our favorite Chinese place and our favorite Indian place.  Over the eight years or so that we’ve had an Indian place in town, we’ve literally tried everything on the menu, most multiple times (particularly when I was pregnant with DC2 and couldn’t eat wheat).  (To be completely truthful, I suspect our kids would be happy with macaroni and cheese with tuna and peas, spaghetti with meat sauce, and grilled cheese each once a week… I don’t know what we would do for the other meals.)

It’s so easy to find new exciting things to try when we go into the city.  Heck, there are fun things at the grocery store to try in the city.  But it seems like if we want new things to try here we’re going to have to keep making them ourselves.  And that takes time.

The box delivery services remove the part of cooking that I like (picking out food) and keep the time consuming parts (chopping).  And, with the exception of purple carrot, the recipes seem pretty pedestrian.  Plus there’s all that plastic.  And the per-person cost for most places is more expensive than take-out.  (Of course, we’re tired of local take-out…)

My sister suggested getting a personal chef, but that seems expensive (most don’t post their prices online, but the ones who do it looks like ~$80/meal for four people, and their suggested menus are BORING).  Plus I really don’t want the kind where someone comes to your house because I don’t want people in my house when I need to work or relax.  Moving to the city and commuting to work on week days also seems less of a good idea than going the other direction on weekends.  But when weekends come, there’s so many chores at home that going to the city just to eat out seems like maybe not a great idea.

So I guess we’ll keep cooking, going through new recipes in cookbooks and Cook’s Country magazine.  And we’ll spend a good portion of each weekend on fancy recipes.  And the kids will complain half the week that they don’t like whatever we’ve made and will thank us fervently the other half.  DC1 had been starting to cook more this summer, but zie has way too much homework during the school year.  Since we remodeled the kitchen and got a new stovetop, DC2 is no longer tall enough to safely use the stove.  So it’s on us.

What do you do about food when you have more money than time?  Would you ever get tired of your local restaurant options?

Why I decided not to buy Sirius XM for my car

When I first got my new car, I got three months free of Sirius XM.  After some poking around, I determined that I found 3 channels worth listening to:  Broadway, Classical, and Opera.  These were great because I find listening to classical or opera to be soothing and during my commute times the local public radio station is playing news, which I do not at all find to be soothing.  Although there are multiple choices for creepy racist talk radio, there is only one option for each of these.  (There’s also a billion sports channels, but I don’t begrudge them that.)

And, after three months, I realized that they don’t have a big rotation list.  Or rather, they may rotate different versions of the same piece from different musicians, but they heavily play the most popular music.  (Or in the case of the Broadway channel, they heavily play music I’m not crazy about.)

If I stuck with Sirius XM, I would likely get sick of some of my favorite operas, especially Tosca which they seem to play at least 2x a week when I’m in the car, particularly the jail scene which is lovely but… I don’t need to hear it quite so often.  And I would DEFINITELY get sick of Carmen which I’m fine with but already wasn’t one of my favorites.  I think the full opera has been on twice during my commute and they often play assorted songs from it.  During the summer I was able to explain part of Carmen to DC1 in the morning on the way to camp as part of the full opera and another part on the way back as a one-off.  Die Meistersinger and Don Giovanni are also a couple that I like that seem to be in pretty heavy rotation.  And some other Wagner that I don’t like so I switch channels.

So, instead I’ve asked DH and the kids to rip all my cds to a flash drive so I can listen in the car.  It is true that I own a copy of Tosca, but I don’t have to listen to it if I don’t want to.  I’ve also been playing more podcasts on my commute (I went through the entire backlist of By the Book this summer).   I also need to remember to spend more time listening to the Mexican stations (there are several that we’re not *quite* in range for, but when the weather is good we can usually get one or two of them to work) para practicar.

If Sirius XM were free, I think I’d still listen to it from time to time.  I do like it more than the local top 40 station.  The lack of commercials is lovely.  But I’m not sure there’s an actual price point that I feel like it’s worth getting.  Especially since it also supports so many crappy crappy evil talk radio stations.

What do you listen to in the car, if anything?  What is your ideal thing to listen to?

Ask the grumpies: Getting started with money

Mel asks:

What books do you recommend for someone who is looking to understand the basics of investing for retirement and how much money a person should hold in their savings account for emergencies? Or to that end, also understanding which comes first: having savings you can reach for at a moment’s notice or putting money into a retirement plan? I’m looking for that sort of information in a book form.

I have a fairly (I think?) healthy relationship with money, carry no debt beyond the mortgage, and feel the word that best describes me is “careful.” So I don’t really need to understand budgeting or how to pay off debt, but I do want to make sure that we’ve saved enough for retirement, saved enough for college (and aren’t going to be locked out of applying for certain loans because we have too much in a savings account vs. moved over into a retirement account — is that even a thing?), and saved enough for emergencies.

I’m looking for big picture books to understand how the various plans work as well as books to avoid because they contain terrible advice.

A good primer on all things personal finance is JD Roth’s book, Your Money:  The Missing Manual.  The numbers will be out of date (you can now save $19K annually in a 401k and 6K annually in an IRA), and we now know that you can legally do a Backdoor Roth, but it is really good at explaining the basics.  Like the difference between an investment (ex. a specific stock fund) and the bucket you save an investment in (ex. a 401k).  It also summarizes many of the best ideas from the best personal finance books.

How much a person should hold in their savings account for emergencies isn’t something there’s 100% agreement on.  In general, most people agree that you should have at minimum around 1K (give or take, probably more given inflation) to cover small emergencies.  After that people tend to think in terms of months of expenses– you need 1 month of regular expenses in case your work has a billing mistake.  You need 3 months of expenses to cover things like car problems or a short-layoff.  You need 6 months of expenses to cover a lengthier spell of unemployment.  Some people will argue a year of expenses, but that’s a luxury.  Other factors are also important like how stable your industry is– if there’s more uncertainty, you need a larger emergency fund, if you are hard to fire then you need a smaller emergency fund.  If you have dual incomes and a spouse can increase hours or cover expenses you might need less.  If you own rental properties you might need more to cover tenant absences or large repairs.  Some people will keep part of their emergency fund in something safe like savings, but keep the bulk of it in an investment that could be tapped in an emergency without penalty, for example the contribution part of an IRA Roth or taxable accounts (or a 457 plan for government employees).  All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren (yes, that Elizabeth Warren) and Amelia Warren Tyagi does an excellent job helping you think through what your monthly expenses are and how emergencies might affect them.

All Your Worth also does a great job in providing heuristics about how much you really can afford to spend given your income.  It provides great guidelines for what percent to put in required spending vs. optional spending vs. savings to provide stability in when there are emergencies.  It’s a really great read and a smart book.  As a note– one thing people often get wrong about her balanced money formula is that they think that they *must* spend what she says to spend and save only what she says to save, which isn’t true– if you read carefully, the spending amount is an upper bound and the savings amount is a lower bound.  She does note that if you are unhappy with your spending and you are saving the recommended amount then you can loosen up, but you don’t have to, especially if you’re considering early retirement.

Once you understand these big picture ideas, you can do one of two things.  You can read the Bogleheads Guide to Investing, or you can just figure out the cheapest target-date fund that your savings provider provides (ex. my work provides Fidelity so I use that for my 403b, outside of work the cheapest is usually Vanguard which I use for my backdoor Roth and taxable investments).  With the target date fund you can just pick a single date (when you plan to retire) and set and forget and it will take care of all the rebalancing and diversification and so on for you.  Easy peasy AND it matches the market, unlike the majority of active managers (who get out-performed by the market).

Here’s a couple of advanced posts on diversification of your overall personal portfolio (not just your retirement investments).  Here’s an ordering strategy of how you could choose to use your money.

In terms of college savings and financial aid, you definitely want to read this series of posts from Forbes Magazine.  Here’s one of our many posts discussing retirement vs college savings.  The short version is that depending on what schools your kids are considering and how much money you make (say, under 300K/year) then you are likely to want to shove as much money into retirement vehicles as possible.  (If I had to go back, I’d funnel some of our 529 money into 403b and 457 accounts, but I didn’t know we’d be as high income as we are now and I didn’t know that financial aid at fancy schools went so high up the income distribution.)

In email conversation you also mentioned that as a freelancer you wanted to know more about ways for self-employed people to save for retirement.  If anybody has book recommendations, that would be great.  I found a couple useful web articles on the topic.   You also mentioned you’d be interested in finding out more about how to tap into retirement money without penalty before age 59.5.  For that there’s something called substantially equal payments that you can use in some cases.  You can also always take money out with the 10% penalty.  Or take the principal out of a Roth (or 457 if you leave that employer).

In terms of what books to avoid:  Dave Ramsey is awesome for debt payment, but he is absolute garbage for investing.  Do not follow his advice for investing.

Grumpy Nation– What books do you and don’t you recommend for Mel?  Any web resources?  How should she get started?  Any advice specific to freelancers?

Grocery shopping fresh produce and bags

After reading either a post or a tweet by wandering scientist (my googling is coming up blank), I decided to add these produce bags to my Christmas wish list.  But Christmas is a long way away, so that got me thinking…

Despite reusable shopping bags and totes heavily cutting down on our plastic grocery bag horde, we still have a ton of the thin plastic bags that one puts produce in at the grocery store.  I try to not use a bag when I’m only buying one item, but each week we buy a bag of apples, and most weeks we buy other assorted groups of produce.  So our plastic bags drawer is full of these thin bags.

I use some of them to take my lunch to work, but they still pile up in the drawer until DH decides the drawer is too full and takes them to the grocery store to recycle.

Then it came to me… we could just reuse these bags for their intended purpose.  Because they only had clean fresh produce in them, they’re still clean.  So I stuck a couple of handfuls in our bag of grocery bags.  We’ll use them like this until they get gross or destroyed.  And come Christmas time, we’ll add the reusable produce bags to our rotation.

In theory, the plastic produce bags could become repositories for bacteria upon reuse, but they’re so fragile they will likely get destroyed before that comes close to being an issue.  And, we of course wash our produce before using it.  Even apples.  I’m a little paranoid about this, having grown up in the jack in the box e coli days.  I would feel uncomfortable eating produce from a reused bag without washing the produce… though I also feel uncomfortable eating produce from a new bag without washing the produce first.  (Another one of my paranoias is that the organic produce we usually buy is lying about pesticides.)

This change should hopefully limit our plastic-bag intake to the bulk aisle at the grocery.  (And our local grocery uses ziploc bags for bulk rather than the thin kind, which we reuse for scooped cat refuse.)

Now, I definitely don’t think that any one person’s behavior change is as important as getting laws changed, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of plastic bags to create ugly and potentially dangerous litter.  And this cuts down on having to remember to deal with the plastic bag drawer issue every few months.

Moving away from paper: I tried to get an IPAD Pro with Apple Pencil (an obnoxious post), but ended up with something reMarkable

My office is full of paper.  I don’t read scholarly articles very well unless I have a pen or pencil in hand and can write on them.  Paper is heavy.  Paper takes up space.  Paper is difficult to organize and difficult to find.

Properly labeled pdfs are easy to find!  You can put them in folders and search for them.  They alphabetize easily.

My problem has always been that the pdfs don’t have my notes on them; the paper does.

So… the phd students in my department have been taking notes with ipads and ipad pencils.  They take notes on their assigned pdfs using their ipads.  Instead of carrying a bag full of paper, they bring a slim tablet with one of these electronic pencils.  They protect their documents from theft or loss by backing their pdfs up on the cloud.  The technology is so much better than when the tablet/stylus idea first came out.

I decided I must have one.  I hope to better organize my service load and literature reviews.  I hope to better be able to carry my reading on planes without breaking my back.  (Imagine– referee reports, reading for external letters, particularly interesting conference papers, and so on.)  I’d like to have my notes in one place!

My first attempt was a total failure.  I bought the wrong size– for some reason I thought an 11 inch ipad Pro would be 8.5×11, but no, 11 is the diagonal.  So I had to send it back.

My second attempt resulted in a pencil that was amazing when it worked (it writes like a good quality smooth pen!), but customer support on the phone decided it had bluetooth problems and had to be replaced.  Fortunately we went through apple service on the last day before it had to be returned because they were going to send me a refurbished pencil without my name on it rather than a new one with my name on it.  Instead we returned it and ordered a new one with my name.

My replacement pencil also didn’t work.  Luckily one of my conference locations this summer had a genius bar nearby.  The Genius Bar determined that it was indeed something wrong with the Ipad’s bluetooth and not the pencil that was the problem.  They didn’t have any in stock, so we had to return and, in theory, buy a new one.  Thankfully this was also before the warranty ran out.

I disappointingly bought the apple recommended portfolio which has no place for the pencil– it just kind of dangles there on the side of the ipad and easily slides off.  Instead, I should have bought the otterbox (we get no kickback for this one) which is the same price as the crappy one apple makes but covers the pencil.  But, I decided instead of returning the disappointing apple portfolio, I would get a really nice case and leave the portfolio on.  So I went to Etsy and got this beautiful wool case from Germany (no kickback here either).  It is lovely and makes me feel a little guilty with how nice it is while at the same time feeling like I am middle aged and can afford to occasionally have nice things that make me look like a grownup.

I planned to do NOTHING with this ipad pro except email, google hangouts (which is how I communicate with RAs), texts (I don’t have a good reason for this, but I don’t text very many people), pdfs, editor stuff, and notes.  My vows:  I will not search the internet.  I will not play games.  I will not read novels.  I will not update the blog.  I will not do anything except treat it like a kindle that I can write on and communicate with.  It will be a work machine and nothing else.  (The reason for this is that I have a heavy addiction to DH’s ipad and I need to not succumb to temptation, which is easy for me to fall into the habit of.)  So I installed adobe reader and planed to use “notes” to take notes and safari for nothing but email, downloading pdfs, and editing duties.

While I was having problems with the ipad Pro, I sat next to a gentleman who had what looked like an oversized kindle.  He was taking notes on it with a stylus.  He was able to move around text and turn his printing into typing and just do all sorts of neat things.  At a break I asked him about it.  He said it’s a tablet from a European company named reMarkable (no kickbacks, just think this is a cool product).  It only has internet access for pdf uploads and downloads, which are done using an app on your desktop or mobile device, and for emailing your text.  It is optimized for note taking and marking up pdfs.  It handles deleting and remembering mark-ups better than the notes or adobe reader on the ipad pro (which can accidentally delete everything far too easily, and can make it difficult to delete earlier things once things have been saved once).  He told me it also functions as an e-reader for books, but doesn’t do as good a job (I have not verified).  Best of all, it’s less than $600 including the stylus, unlike the ipad Pro.  The case they sell is more like a pocket, so do not recommend, but the reMarkable doesn’t really need a case.  It is exactly what I wanted, except a little smaller.

In the end, I bought both.  I decided that I would use the iPad Pro for trips because it’s a lot lighter than my laptop and more functional than my phone.  I used it on a recent trip to read and mark-up the readings for a tenure letter I had to write and it worked well for that purpose (though after using the remarkable, Adobe Reader is a bit clunky in terms of switching between scrolling and annotating, and it would be nice if they made better use of layers to make erasing after the fact easier).  The reMarkable will be my go-to at home and work as I transition from paper to electricity.  If we were cash poor, I definitely would have returned the Apple Pencil when I returned the broken iPad Pro instead of buying a new one and just stuck with the reMarkable, which really does do everything I wanted.  If I weren’t prey to loss aversion, I might have looked into getting a slim laptop instead of the iPad Pro for more functionality after sending back the broken iPad Pro.

How do you mark things up?  Do you still use paper?  If you use electronics, what do you use?

Feeling like a jerk about money

If you will recall, DH and his family go on a family vacation each summer.

This year at the end of the trip, they talked about where to go next summer.

A first suggestion was an East Coast beach tourist destination (not Florida).

This year we paid for the house and our travel and a portion of the food.  DH’s parents mostly paid for the rest.  But the house was cheap because it just doesn’t cost much to Air BnB a house in a state capitol in the summer.  So total was something like $2,500.

East Coast tourist destinations are expensive and far away from the Midwest (except Florida, which is relatively cheap but still far away).

Another suggestion was a popular midwestern summer destination heavy on theme parks.  Some of us would fly but some of them could drive.  But the group houses there are expensive!  I don’t feel like we could foot the entire bill like we did this year, especially since we’d probably be staying longer than three nights.

Neither of DH’s siblings asked about defraying the cost of lodging this year.  We wouldn’t have let them contribute this year because it wasn’t a big deal, but if we’re talking about a more popular tourist destination, the price goes up.  BIL has a good union job with a SAHW and a house that’s bigger than ours (glassdoor suggests a salary ~$90K, but who knows).  SIL’s family makes over 100K now (she’s a teacher so her salary is public and MIL said her husband is now making more than she is with his latest raise– I am so crass!).  Of course, BIL has paid for his wife’s family to go with them on a second trip to Disney World.  SIL is financially supporting her husband’s family in many ways.  So income is not the same as disposable income.

DH had been thinking that next year they could all gather in BIL’s hometown, which is an hour or so away from SIL’s.  But it sounds like they want to do something more exciting.  Which means we have to think about how much of the cost we’re going to defray and what we’ll let DH’s parents pay.  And… I think it’s really unlikely that either DH or his parents will ask his siblings to contribute unless they decide to get separate hotel rooms instead of renting a house.  And I think it’s really unlikely that his siblings will even think of offering.

What is wrong with me that we can’t just give a gift without me expecting some gratitude or acknowledgement?  I think in this case, it really is the money.  We can handle nobody knowing or caring that we paid for a lot of this summer’s vacation and other previous summers, but once they start talking about more and more expensive places without chipping in (to be fair, DH’s parents do offer to pay for the entire thing and have paid for whatever we don’t pay for in the past, or to be more accurate, with the exception of this past year they pay and we contribute) it seems like a bit much.  We can fix that in the future by saying we can contribute X amount during the planning stage, so it’s unlikely to be a big deal going forward.  I don’t think DH’s parents would spend so much on one of these family vacations that it would jeopardize their retirement, so we shouldn’t be worrying about that possibility.

Anyhow, I feel like a jerk about money.  We do still make more than the rest of DH’s family.  If we don’t offer to contribute, DH’s parents will pay for everything.  As far as we know, they’re not in danger of running out of retirement money.  This shouldn’t be a problem.  And yet, I have to admit, I’m a bit annoyed.  But we will probably continue this way unless and until some negative change in DH’s job situation.