My newest favourite thing

We all know that we need to reduce our energy consumption to help our planet, right? And we all know that electricity prices are not decreasing, anywhere, any time soon, right? And we all love to support a great cause, right?

Ta-da! The Wonderbag!

The Wonderbag

The Wonderbag

I first learned about the concept of wonderbags through an organisation called Soil For Life. They uplift the poor by teaching them to grow healthy, nutritious food where they are, using what they have, for very little cost. They started teaching women to make insulated bags or boxes to minimise their fuel consumption by starting their meal on a heat source (electricity, gas, paraffin or wood) but then use heat-retention to complete the cooking time and thereby save money.

The concept has now grown into a business that makes and sells Wonderbags to the general public.

A birthday surprise

Andrew read about them on a Yuppie Chef mailer and immediately ordered one for my birthday knowing that this sort of thing is just ‘me’! I have a Sunstove (a box that harnesses the sun’s light and heat energy for cooking) and frequently sing the praises of my pressure cooker which cooks up delicious curries and stews using a fraction of the electricity that conventional cooking does. I love my slow cooker too, and take the energy savings further by covering it in a heavy towel to reduce heat loss while it is in use, reducing the cooking time by effectively cooking as if on the HIGH setting while the dial is actually set to LOW. (For a funny story about my towel wrapped slow cooker, scroll to the end!)

And now, I LOVE my Wonderbag! It is essentially a slow cooker – except that you only use a few minutes of electricity while a traditional slow cooker uses electricity throughout its cooking time.

How it works

Just start your food on the stove top or in the oven, bring it up to full heat and then remove it from the stove, close it up in your Wonderbag and leave it there to keep cooking. The insulated bag retains heat amazingly well (seriously, I was SO surprised at how hot food still is hours after being removed from the stove) and keeps cooking without using any electricity. It works really, really well!

The website has cooking guidelines and recipes. I haven’t used any of their actual recipes yet except as a guideline for how long I should cook one of my own soups, stews or whatever.

So for example, to cook rice I add one cup of rice and two cups of water and a little salt to my usual pot. As soon as it’s boiling, I remove it from the stove top and close it up in my Wonderbag and 1 hour later I have perfectly cooked rice! I cooked a traditional beef stew on the stove for about 20 minutes, closed it up and left it for 4 hours in my Wonderbag and served a delicious and tender meal that was still hot enough to not even require reheating.

So far, everything I have tried has cooked beautifully. I’ve done rice, beans, lentils, soups, stews and even bolognese mince sauce. It cuts electricity usage by about 90% while still cooking food very, very nicely. 90% electricity savings is not insignificant!

The only drawback is that the bag is bulky and so takes up some storage space when not in use (it is about the size of a dog basket for small dogs). And I will admit that it took a bit of a mind shift to cook my food in a bag. But within days I was completely convinced that its not just a good idea, it’s a GREAT one!

To get one for yourself…

If you live in South Africa, order yours from Yuppie Chef (free delivery in SA). Yuppie Chef also offers the amazing option of buying the Wonderbag for an underprivileged person (they handle the donation) for just R150!

If you live in the USA, buy your bag on Amazon. For every bag purchased in the USA, one is donated to a needy family in Africa!

Autumn, my sweet fat hen nestled comfortable on top of my towel-wrapped slow cooker!

Autumn, my sweet fat hen nestled comfortable on top of my towel-wrapped slow cooker!

 My towel-wrapped slow cooker became quite a joke when my sweet hen wandered into the house one evening while I was bathing the children (yes, my chickens visit us inside sometimes). I’m not sure what prompted her to jump up onto the counter but upon discovering the slow cooker wrapped in a towel, decided she had found herself a bed far softer and warmer than her wooden box in the garden! She settled comfortably on top of it and looked wonderfully content!

Tea-parties & art classes – REALLY?

A few days ago someone said something that really got to me. In fact, its been chewing me up quite badly.

She commented that her husband  must now work and save extremely hard (he is in his 60s) because of all the years he “had the kids and no support”. What she meant by this is that this man’s first wife was unable to work as the result of severe, untreatable illness, so his was the only income in his household.

This was not the first time she has made such comments. She has often spoken about how “unfair” it is that some husbands are solitary earners in their households, and speaks of their wives as “lazy” and “useless” and “enjoying tea parties and art classes all day”.

And yes, she speaks of these things, in a tone of utter disdain, to me, a wife whose husband is our household’s solitary earner. Does she do it because she knows I’m different? No. She does it because really values her own opinion and she wants everyone to know very clearly what her opinion is and to make anyone who doesn’t fit her mold of ‘acceptable’ feel very small.

So I wanted to correct her. To tell her that quite contrary to being lazy, I actually work very hard. That Andrew and I are a team – he works hard to earn the money, I work hard to stretch it really far. I wanted to tell her about our savings accounts and investment plans, that, ahem, (and you can ask Andrew – he’ll be the first to agree), I am to thank for. He is the big spender here, I am the saver. Those savings have been carefully carved out of a modest budget and purposefully set aside through some very careful planning and spending on my part.

I wanted to sit her down with a calculator and show her how much it would cost to send our children to school (no such thing as free education in South Africa), how much the uniforms and fuel for the car and classroom supplies and field trips would all add to that. And then compare that figure to what I would earn if I went out to work instead of homeschooling them. I have no higher education. My earning capability is basic, at best. I’m not proud of that, but I’m not ashamed of it either. It just is what it is. The truth is, with four children, I would need to earn the same as Andrew to afford to send our children to school.

Tea parties and art classes are nowhere to be found in my schedule. Nope. My schedule is full of things like piano, violin and flute lessons, swimming classes, horse riding lessons, youth clubs, getting our eldest daughter to her babysitting jobs. When it came to fitting child-related activities into her schedule, they would have taken the form of  “mid-term break: collect X from boarding school”.

What is more, my schedule frequently involves running errands for Andrew and doing other things that help and serve him. Quite the opposite to abusing my man by making him work so hard and using all that free time all for myself, I actually do things for him.

But truthfully, I would be wasting my time and efforts if I engaged her on this subject. Her mind is made up.

So why did it bother me so much?

I don’t know. It could be because I know there is nothing wrong with how we have set up our lives. It could be the frank and open insult. It could be that this all seems very rich coming from a woman who has such strong opinions on right and wrong in marriage but her own ended very sadly in bitter divorce after her husband had an affair.

Probably the closest reason I can get to is that no one has any right to tell anyone else how to live their lives. We can have ideas and opinions, but they are our own and we have no place forcing them onto anybody else. Andrew and I love the way we have set up our lives. It works very well for us. He doesn’t feel unsupported or that it is unfair that he brings in our income alone. In fact, there are times when I have considered picking up part-time work and actually, he really prefers me to be fully available and focussed on our home and family.

So now I just need to take a deep breath and, in my thoughts at least, tell this person to take a hike. We’re happy. We’re different. But we’re happy. Our life works for us. So deal with it.

* It is also worth mentioning that the man who, in her opinion, needs to work and save harder is actually extremely wealthy and without debt and has, by his own admission, plump retirement accounts. He harbours no hard feelings against his first wife (who died many years ago) because she couldn’t work.

Cooking From Scratch to Save $$$

Staple ingredients

 Both Brandy at The Prudent Homemaker and Amy at Money Saving Mom covered cooking from scratch in posts last week. I loved this! It’s one of the things I’ve tried to lower our grocery budget over the past few months and, guess what? It really DOES save $$$!

How?

It’s quite easy – make basic foods from scratch. Pancakes, cookies and other baked goods are the obvious ones. We’ve taken it a bit further and we have made our own pizza bases, bread, pasta, pastry, granola, sauces, marmalade and cordial (lemonade syrup).

Stretch the savings further

Making something from scratch will almost always be cheaper than buying it already made. It is also likely to be far more healthy.

But it is very easy to stretch the savings even further by using staples purchased on sale. Flour, sugar, oil, butter/margarine, oats, milk, and eggs are just a few of the staples I used to make the things I mentioned earlier from scratch and all of them came from my pantry which is stocked with goods bought cheaply, in bulk, when they are at good prices.

The lemons for the marmalade and cordial were free from a friends lemon tree. The pasta sauce ingredients were purchased cheaply at a local fresh food market and the herbs were free from my garden.

The veggies used in our soups, stews and casseroles were purchased in bulk from a fresh foods market very cheaply. I store them carefully and those that doen’t last well I peel and chop and either freeze raw or cooked.

I cook Cadence’s fruit and veggies once a week. I puree them and freeze them in ice cube trays. This is easy, ensures variety and costs pennies.

Does it really make a difference?

YES! I spent half the amount I usually do on groceries for the month of June! I still stocked up on things that were on sale (like 20 blocks of butter, several blocks of cheese and bags of sugar, macaroni and flour, various tinned foods, bottles of cooking oil). So actually, I didn’t expect to see such a difference in how much I spent!

But there was a huge difference! And that was because I made a big effort to only buy things that were selling very inexpensively and to feed my family simple meals using these ingredients and what I already had on hand.

Did they notice?

NO! I asked them “Have you noticed a difference in how we’re eating?”. They haven’t! In fact, they’ve had more “fun food” than usual, like cookies, muffins and pancakes for breakfast.

So what’s the catch?

Time and planning! You need to plan ahead and make the time. But it is worth it! And although everyone seems to be so busy these days, it is clear from various blogs and comments on blogs that many mothers work fulltime outside of the home and still find the time to make foods from scratch because they appreciate the financial savings and health benefits. So it is definitely “do-able”.

So how about you?

Have you thought about cooking from scratch more? Do you? I’d love any advice or ideas you can offer!