Sunday, August 9, 2015

Quick and Easy Ways To Find Good Music

To relax, work, and play, I rely on music.  However, my accessible music selection is kinda sad as I have a terrabyte of music on an external harddrive I have yet to sort through.  So, while I put off THAT project, for my day to day music needs, this is how I get by.

Online Streaming Music - 
Since Grooveshark went down, I have moved along to Jango for entering an example of what I want to hear, and having it create a 'similar' playlist. So far, the ads on the page are exploding, but there don't seem to be as many audio ads between the songs for Jango (about 1 every 3-5 songs) as there are on Pandora (ever 2-3 songs). Even though there are ads and they are irksome, it is the cost of free without legal ramifications.

Also, if I am more in a radio play mode, I will look up online radio stations like National Public Radio (NPR) or 365 Internet Radio.  These have ads too, but often have some real people talking now and again, too, which is a little softening from the iPod algorithms of most song plays.

I Need That One Song - 
Two step process for this.
1st:  I go find the song I need on Youtube - checking to make sure it is the version I want.
2nd: I go to FLVTO, where I enter the share address of that youtube video, hit 'convert', and the website strips the video and creates a little MP3 of the audio.

Obtain Full CD's or Find Genre Collections-
Go to your local library.  Or, like me, libraries (I am a member of 3 libraries in my area, alone - city, county, and metro area).  They have CD's on site, you can request Inter-Library Loans of CD's from other libraries, and you can upload right into your computer as needed.  If you don't like the artist, you aren't out any money.  They also have some good 'mix up' collections and movie soundtracks that have a fun variety of artists on one disc.

Explore New Stuff-
Check out your library's online options for sites where you can download new audio files daily or weekly and listen to things for free.  Or, just pull some of those wacky looking CD cases and listen to them.

Ask your friends, or check out the local music and events newspaper in your area to read up on up and coming groups and sou

I also will simply add this site's List of Apps and Stuff to Find New Music.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Project of the Week: Magazine Rack, pt 1.

This week's project was found at a rummage sale.  It is a circa 1970's magazine holder, made in Taiwan.  I bought it for a $1.50.

It is made of plywood and had a dark stained veneer that was worn in places, and the poly coat was crackling in a not-so-pretty distressed fashion.  The plywood bottom had warped a little, separating from the wood center slat that keeps the magazine to the left and right.  One bottom corner of the end piece had some chipping, with little pieces of the center ply missing.

The simple design is a bit dated to woodworking hobbyists in the '70's, as the wood finials that screwed onto the ends hold the entire thing together.  This made for super easy refinishing, though, as 10 finials unscrewed let all of the pieces separate from each other.  The screws were in great condition, no rust.  I took wood putty and filled in the gap of the center piece at the bottom and the bottom end corner that had chipped.  I sanded the putty down once dry, and lightly sanded the entire piece to give the paint something to adhere to.  As I was using spray paint, I didn't work too hard at the sanding, though should have, as one spot I had to sand again and apply a 2nd and 3rd layer of paint, because it had a waxy residue that repelled the spray paint.  So, I have a little 'paint blob' in that area.  Live and learn.

I should have found toothpicks and properly spray painted the finials while they were suspended, but I have plans to 'dress' them up in microbeads, so didn't worry too much about their even-coatedness.  This is the end result of the high gloss black spray paint treatment.

It looks good, but still a bit dated by its very design.  So, I am off today to buy micro beads to coat the finials in, to give it some 'bling'.  I also will be looking for just the right stencil to apply to the end pieces, as I think a little imagery will help bring it to the 21st century.  I will post pictures when that is done!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The 'Injured and Immobile' Gift Basket

So, my neighbor and good friend went in for knee replacement surgery.  I wanted to get her something of a care package, because she is always so helpful and generous to us.  I ended up putting together the 'stuff' of this basket for under $10 bucks.  I wanted to do more with the 'pretty' factor, but there was so much stuff, I ended up just delivering it 'as is', and let her discover things as she dug down.  Here's the photo I took of it quick before running it over to her.

I really didn't have more than $10 to spend on it, but I thought it turned out pretty well.  I included things based on what I'd heard and read of other people being stuck in the hospital complain about, and things I wish I'd had that first week when I broke my leg.  In some ways, this gift basket is incomplete, because there were some things I know she'd want to have on hand, but already had plenty of.  Like, I know she has 30 hairbrushes, so didn't get her one, but I know she never seems to have a hair tie.   

But how did I get all that for $10, AND a basket?  Well, first I had to shop the house.  Like in decorating, we often end up with things that we have too many of already, or simply don't/won't use.  Make sure that what you provide is sanitary/sanitized (they are already having health issues!) and looks in mint or near new condition.  Second, I made one thing myself from household ingredients, and put in an old small spice bottle.  The label I should've worked hard on, but I wanted to get her the gift before she left for the hospital.  I ended up at the thrift store and saw the perfect book for someone about to be bed-bound for 2 weeks.  The rest of the items I found at the Dollar Store.

From the House:  

  • 3 magazines, all just arrived in my mail box (see Getting Free Magazines,) 
  • Earplugs, new in the bag, from the stash of 100 I bought when I played in a metal band, 
  • Cleaned out medicine bottle labeled "CR's Ear Plugs" - a place to put them to stay clean and not get thrown out/lost right away. 
  • Notepad - re-gifted, mom sent me 4 stacks 
  • pens (make sure each pen works and has lots of ink) - 
  • 4 hair ties tied with a scrap of ribbon (I had just opened a new pack, so I found the prettiest colors that I hadn't worn yet.)  
  • Small bag of cough drops from a BOGO deal 
  • BB&B Lotion, regifted Secret Santa (too strong of scent for me!) 
  • Silly Putty toy w/stick on body parts- regifted gag gift 
Made It Myself:

  • Dry Shampoo Powder - cornstarch, cocoa powder (as she has darker hair), and mint essential oil.  I told her she would smell of hot chocolate.

From the Thrift Store - 

  • "150 Ways To Play Solitaire" Book, 50% off day, cost $0.50.

From the Dollar Store:

  • Back scratch-er
  • Fuzzy socks w/sticky bottoms
  • Eye mask
  • Eyeglass/Device Screen Cleaner w/microfiber rag 
  • Kleenex-pocket sized
  • Metal tweezer/clipper/cuticle kit
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Clorox wipes
  • Purple Basket

There are a multitude of ways I could have spent less, such as sewing my own eye mask, making my own hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, or carving my own back scratcher, but in the time I had, I put together a basket that was happily received.  In the process of you making a gift for that newly-bed ridden friend, I've provided a complete list of things to consider to include.

Complete List of Possible Contents For 
 "Injured and Immobile" Gift Basket

Magazines of their interest
Books of their interest, or gift card for eBooks if they are an eReader/tablet user
Puzzle books, either word find/crossword/sudoku
"150 Ways To Play Solitaire" Book, or similar rules/variations book 
Deck of cards
Silly Putty, or any tactile toy to fiddle with (Rubrix cube, Slinky, etc)

Back scratch-er
Fuzzy socks w/sticky bottoms - provide warmth, and allowed in hospitals (they need to be sticky.)
Earplugs  - provide something to put them in when not in use if they didn't come with one
Eye mask
Cough drops - coughing after surgery hurts, because it tenses your whole body
Any favorite or basic 'snacking' items
Any favorite beverages 
Tea bags or coffee, and if you know they are on a couch and move it there, a gallon of water for the brewer.
Soft pillowcase (great for cold weather)
Heating pads
Large water pitcher (though often provided by the hospital)

Notepad w/pens
Eyeglass/Device Screen Cleaner w/microfiber rag - don't let smudges accumulate
Roll of quarters - for them or visitors to hit the candy machine if needed
Lightweight extension cord and/or strip- for keeping their devices within reach while charging
Reading light, like an LED battery lamp

Keeping Clean and Tidy:
Kleenex-pocket sized packs so small enough to keep on the person for the random sniffle/spill/etc.
Hair ties
Handkerchief for hair
Dry Shampoo - good when not showering
Small hair brush
Small mirror
Breath mints
Metal tweezer/clipper/cuticle kit - also practical, as having little 'tools' at hand's reach can prove useful for many reasons.
Hand sanitizer - because you can't get up and wash your hands
Clorox wipes - keeping clean without the sink and suds.

Container Ideas:
Wicker Baskets - from thrift store, washed or repainted, or from Dollar store
Paper covered cardboard boxes
Plastic bins/baskets
Tin cans
Mugs/Coffee cups/water pitchers
Trash can
Paper bags
Any container works, so long as the stuff fits, and the container is either a)made of recycled material or b)able to be re-used/re-purposed.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Shredding On a Dime

So, you know that feeling when you finally get through that huge box of papers you've been putting off sorting?  I had the feeling, but I also had almost 10lbs of papers that should be shredded.  I was going to bring it to Staples or something, figuring they'd have a big bin of stuff they shred and I could just dump it in.  Well, they had a bin, but they charge $0.49 a lb for the service of shredding it.  I had almost 10 lbs of paper!  I didn't feel like spending $5 to have it shredded.  So, how much is a paper shredder?  Staples has a basic, no frills straight cut shredder for $19.89.  Well, I don't feel like spending $19.89, either!  What's a girl to do?

Simple.  Browse the thrift stores.  For some reason, paper shredders accumulate at certain locations (those near concentrations of small businesses, especially.)  Once you find the store, wait for a sale day.

The Paper Shredder
I went on a 50% off day, and found this OfficeMax shredder with a basket for $5.00 (50% off from the $10.00 they were asking.)  I was able to test it at the store, and this thrift store has a store-credit return policy, even on electronics, if brought back in 14 days.  Thankfully, I didn't have to return it, as it worked like a charm.

So, after successfully shredding all my paper that I had to, I basically have a free paper shredder.  I plan to leave it by my mail sort area, so it will double as a recycle bin for paper.  Thinking about it, it is hard to buy a small trash bin new for $5, these days.  I may have to do a post on all the crafty things I will attempt with my easily made paper strips.

Other ways to shred:
Other ways to get paper shredded for free could be asking a local business you deal with (consider one that handles legal or health documents) to see if you could place a one-time or occasional deposit in their certified shredder bin.  They pay by the pound, usually, so the dollar or so you might cost them in weight they'd give you as a perk for your business.  Some libraries,too, have these shredder bins, too, so it never hurts to ask.    

Burning of paper can make it unreadable without a paper shredder, so roll up some paper logs if you have a fireplace or fire pit.

And then there was paper... 

So, this is what my first 5lbs of shredded paper looked like!  Doing a little hunting online, I think I'm going to try make it into paper firepit logs, for my mother-in-law's fire pit.  Just gotta wait for a sunny day (which, in Arizona, you'd think wouldn't be a problem, right?)  Check out other ideas collected on Doralene Altizer Bailey's Pinterest Board, "What to do with shredded paper."

Paper or plastic?  Both.
Deciding to have a back up plan for the shredded paper (in case I don't get to the project) I checked and curb recycling takes shredded paper.  The downside is they require it to be in a CLEAR plastic bag.  I don't buy garbage bags, let alone clear ones. I noticed Staples carries clear 15 gallon garbage bags, $11.99 for 50/Box.  I didn't want to spend $12 bucks for what would probably be a 10 year supply for me.  What to do?

Well, here is where the line between frugal and cheap starts to blur with me.  I was visiting a friend in the hospital, and I noticed the hospital has all clear garbage bags in their bin.  Remembering my days at the nursing home, I peaked under the bag in the bin, and sure enough, there was a roll of 'em. I ripped off three bags and tucked them in my pocket (while my friend laughed like a woman on pain meds).  I figure the hospital pays $0.05 a bag, so I made sure to pick up all the bits of garbage I found on my way out, including in the parking lot.  That had to save the custodial staff $0.15 worth of time, right?  Line... me...  fuzzy.

By the way, there is no greater feeling than sitting on the couch, shredding documents like an Enron CEO.  After you do it for long enough, you actually feel your eyes getting shifty.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cleaning Up Books for Regifting

Book Cleaning Tips and Re-Gift-ability Scores:
So, at the thrift store, you see a book that you know Mrs. _______ would love.  You have to get her a birthday gift next month.  Do you get the book used to gift to her?

The answer: It depends.

It depends on both what kind of person Mrs. ______ is, and what condition the book is in.  Here are the common ailments of used books and how you can try correct them, as well as how they affect the books ability to become a gift to someone new.

Common Used Book Ailments / Re-Gift-ability:

Germs - All fearful of the microbes, most all germs are dead within days (MRSA can take up to a few weeks) of being outside a human body.  Check out this post here for more info on their life spans outside a human body.  So, if you are worried about a used book bringing in some sickness, put it in 'quarantine' (or, like me, forget you bought it and leave in the car for a week.)  Don't wipe down books with alcohol or windex/ammonia or bleach, as chemicals tend to make plastic brittle and paper yellow.  Wiping down the exterior cover of a book to remove smudges is fine, just do so with a barely-damp cloth and water, adding just a tiny smidgen of soap if you are really concerned about 'clean'.  Any kids 'floppy' books can be hot water and soap bathed, and many cloth books are machine washable - just make sure to air dry them so they don't shrink.
Re-Gift-ability Score - 10
Don't let used status and unknown provenance prevent a book purchase as a gift.  Plan ahead to have it cleaned/aired out before giving, make sure that the recipient wouldn't freak out if she were to know it was a used book, and you will be fine.  However, common sense people - I would recommend avoiding the books with full-on boogers stuck on, as fluid stains don't really come off.  (eeewwww.)

Sticker Removal -
To remove the sticker, methods vary, but I have good luck with the following.  If the sticker is in a prominent place (front cover) then spot test the cover material with the oil to make sure it doesn't cause discoloration.

First, work up one corner of the sticker with fingernail or plastic knife edge, and then 'worry' at it, slowly pushing and pulling up a little bit more at a time, so the adhesive material is pulled up with each little tug and the paper doesn't separate from the adhesive.  If it does, use a plastic butter knife edge or credit card to gently push any remaining paper fibers off.  Then, with a drop of essential oil or Goo-Gone and a lint-free cloth, rub in circular motions to remove the adhesive gunk.  Use as little oil as possible to get the job done.  Wipe and buff the area to clear it of all oil.  All done!
Re-Gift-ability Score - 10
Most outside stickers can be removed from books without any sign they were ever there, so feel free to de-sticker and regift these books if otherwise fine.  If the book is more than 5-10 years, peak under any older stickers to make sure it didn't fade unevenly (which makes it not a great gift).

General dust/dirt - Just sitting on a shelf accumulates a bit of dust and can turn pristine white pages a bit dull.  To clean books page edges, hold the pages together tight, with the book's binder up, pages down.  Wipe the page edges down with an 'eraser pad' (loose eraser particles in a puff bag) and let the eraser bits lift up and hold loose dirt.  Take a soft, clean puffy brush (like that make-up blush brush you never actually used on anything) and run it after the eraser pad to remove eraser bits.   If no brush, try a vacuum to remove static-clung eraser crumbs.  If no eraser pad, blow dust off and gently rub over with an art gum eraser, then vacuum off crumbs.
Re-Gift-ability Score - 7  
In general, books that look dirty aren't well received as gifts unless the person cares more about the topic than condition (just the 'perfect' book for that someone.)  If the book cover/edges clean up well, gift away, but buy them with a back-up plan in mind, in case the dirt and dust won't budge.

Smells -
Paper is tiny fibers, and when a fiber takes up particles that smell, it doesn't willingly release it all at once.  You can, however, mitigate smells like smoke, perfume, or animal (not so much ammonia) by speeding up the rate at which the fiber draws in other things.  First, make sure the book is dried out.  Second, consider a commercial dryer sheet between every few pages for a few days (masking over whatever smelly particles are still there).  Try place the book in a bag or box with baking soda or clean kitty litter (absorption of particles by something else) - just keep the book from actually being in contact with those so it doesn't get dusty.  
Re-Gift-ability Score - 0-1
Smells often are not just unpleasant, but some can cause headaches or reactions to people with allergies.  A book is held right up to the nose, nearly, so never buy a book for a gift if you can smell where it came from.  If you de-stink one successfully and want to gift it, make sure that person doesn't have any allergies that could still be set off by the original cause of the smell.

Edge marks -
Kneadable, white polymer, or art gum erasers can help lift off dirt, pencil, smudges, and marks that accumulate on the sides of the pages.  Art gum probably works best, because it attracts dirt but falls away in eraser crumbs without rubbing anything into the paper. Just hold the book shut tight and try keep the binder pointed up, pages out/down, so eraser bits don't fall between pages.  If there is a 'sun tan' discoloring on the edges, you can take super fine sand paper and 'polish off' the edge to get down to white paper again, but this isn't recommended because it may be noticed when the book is opened if it has thicker pages.
Re-Gift-ability Score - 7-8  
Most edge marks are removable with a little care, and even if a faint darkening is still there, even new books take on these 'beauty marks' from packaging.  Doubtful any but the OCD will even notice.  Just make sure to try remove any that look like oily fingerprints.

Writing On the Inside Cover -
Many people gift books and sign the inside cover or inside first page.  When re-gifting a book like this, or putting it in use for other reasons then your own reading, consider making a print out page with a new message to paste over top.  Print the tag on thick paper, put PVA/white school glue on the back of tag as thin as possible, then adhere into book over writing.  The key here is 'very thin' coating of glue, spread 'barely-there' with an old credit card or stiff plastic edge.  Press a clean credit card or stiff plastic edge over the top of the paper as well, to ensure it is fully flat and smooth against the book and doesn't try to wrinkle when drying.  Printing on cardstock will also help keep the printed image sharp.  If you don't want to risk the drying wrinkles, consider printing on full sticker sheets, available at office supply stores, or using an acid-free spray adhesive.  Cut to size and adhere.
Re-Gift-ability Score - 2-4
Although covering it up is a must if you are going to regift it to all but the most appreciative people, some people really get uncomfortable receiving 'someone else's' gift - like they weren't good enough to get their own.  For really young children, I'd say go for it- they will love writing their name on the tag.  For a little older children through teenagers, avoid it unless you know they'll love the book.  Adults are hit or miss regarding this, so know the person you are gifting.

BTW: Here is a sample "book tag" I made for my sister's library of crafting books.  Feel free to use this for your own books if you have a mind to (I may add a few other themed ones, later on):

Lifting cover corners -
When the very corners of a book have the plastic/laminate start to separate from the paperboard material, you can sometimes stop the progression with the lightest hand, a tiny brush, some white glue, and a 'shine' of clear nail polish for shiny plastic covers, or white elmer's glue for matte-finish covers or paperbacks.  This can cause some coloring on the inside white paper of the cover (from absorbing moisture in either glue or polish), but it will keep the corner crisp.
Re-Gift-ability Score - 5
Books, especially their bottom right corners, take some abuse, and a little wear won't subtract from a beautifully bound how-to book, or a can't wait to read paperback.  However, don't gift these books to people who 'show off' their books as much as read them, or collect them.  Most of my friends are already buying used books for themselves, so I hardly look at the corner tip conditions anymore, and glue them down just to keep them from getting worse.

Crayon -
It's well known, the crayon drawings ruining otherwise pristine children's books.  I was curious if there was a 'good' way to get the crayon off and dried a few online tips. I tried the dry magic eraser (don't), a kneadable pencil eraser (the best) and a white 'polymer' pencil eraser (2nd place).  If you read about wax paper pulling it off, I think that is hoo-ey, or you need really high quality wax paper to make it work, because I tried that on a corner and it didn't even shine the crayon wax, let alone adhere it to the wax paper.  The magic eraser (dry) wears off the surface of the page, taking off the wax, but I'm afraid it is too harsh, and for a colored kid's book page, this would just make the page look worn and colored on.  Kneadable eraser, suggested by Crayola, removed the waxy sheen and some of the dye coloring, though it was still noticeble on white paper.  Try this first if you have an art student rather than reader.  The white polymer eraser removed about the same amount of wax and dye as the kneadable, though left a little more dye color behind.  These methods can help lessen the look of the crayon, but I fear crayons, made of wax and dyes, will stay tight to the paper fibers they are drawn on.
Re-Gift-ability Score - 0
Crayons negate a book for re-gifting, because someone else literally 'changed the story' with their crayon (remember The Purple Crayon?).  However, these books can still be just given to kids that just like books, as it may not affect the enjoyment any.  Know the kid, and try a kneadable or white eraser to mitigate the damage.

Pen and pencil-
Kneadable erasers or polymer erasers also work well for some pen and most pencil marks, as they are the softest erasers and pick up material as they are wiped over it.  Gel pens tend to just smear.
Re-Gift-ability Score - 1-3
It really depends on if the pen or pencil a) went across one page or is on every page, and b) the type of book.  Many times you see penciled in notes throughout a book - if the topic is one that is hard to find books on, your friend may understand your purchasing used, and if he is studying the topic, may even get a kick out of someone else's notes.  As for accidental streaks, one pen mark can easily be overlooked in a hefty reference book, but not so across a glossy picture in a coffee table book.  If you can erase it, all the better, but save your energy for the books you know the recipient wants to read thoroughly and not 'look' at.

Loose pages -
Instant no-no for a re-gift, but to save a good book, use invisible tape and run it the entire length of the entire page that is falling out, taping the seam of first it to the page on its left (crease down tape with fingernail), then turn the page naturally, and repeat, taping the seam of it to the page to its right.  Fully torn or ripped pages can be carefully aligned and taped, but will almost always look like they were torn or ripped, and most tapes aren't acid-free, so will be yellowing in a few years.  If you really need the book to be repaired well, consider bringing it to the library and using a bit of their book repair tape (an acid-free tissue paper type tape with water activated adhesive that blends into paper and lets ink be read through it.)  The only books that really are worth this effort, in my opinion, are required reference or education books that simply cost too much to not keep in repair.
Re-Gift-ability Score -0
Don't bother.  If there are pages coming loose, the book's binding system is likely not holding up, and the whole point of giving books is giving something of value that will last.  Unless someone would want the book for ripping apart and crafting, don't consider gifting books with loose pages.

Buying Used Books AND Re-Gifting NO-NO's:

  • Water damage/wavy pages
  • Signs/smells of mold or must
  • Broken and snapped spines or bindings
  • More than one torn/ripped page
  • Smoke damage/heavy smoke smell
  • Signs of insect or mouse infestation

Wondering WHICH books to look for to give?  Here is a neat article that sums up some ideas for book intentions to consider to gift to people.

Kitchen Tools That Save - Pt 1: Hand Tools

In my spend-thrift days of yesteryear, I was walking through Target and saw this OXO rolly garlic chopper.  It was so COOL!  I bought it.  I barely knew how to cook at the time, and rarely used fresh garlic, and when I did use my new tool I realized it was really hard to clean out, afterwards. But I HAD to have it! $10.00 I spent on it, and it took up space in my drawer for a year, then ended up on a rummage sale for a $1.  Not a good investment.

Now-a-days, I try hard to not to buy 'stuff' unless I know I need it or will use the dickens out of it.  I always try to buy it used first, if that is safe and practical.  However, I have found some tools in the kitchen that just save me enough to be worth whatever was paid for them.

I present to you Part 1: Hand Tools.  These are simple things that could or are saving you either food, waste, money, time, or health.  Here's how they do it, and what to look for if you need one.

Kitchen Towels - 
Often called workhorses in the kitchen, the lowly kitchen towel in known for keeping counters dry
and clean, as well as drying hands, being fill-in pot holders, drying dishes and glasses, and soaking up spills.  They stand in for kitchen art, with a burst of color or softness in the often monochrome, hard-surfaced kitchen, and sometimes become the curtains, too.  They are there to serve warm bread, cover rising dough, roll out pastry dough on, dry and store lettuce, wrap up gifts, chase off flies and waft smoke away from the smoke alarm as your burned dinner cools.  We use them so much, and so often, we don't even notice them, yet they're extended and sustained use will cut into the average 4 rolls of paper towels the average American family throws out each week.  That adds up to a chunk of change you don't have to throw away.

If you're looking to get some, you can make them from material (4 hems), buy them used (only after assuring high quality condition) or you can buy new, as low as .38 each in an automotive cotton towel pack, to super pretty $20.00 a piece at a boutique.  Here's what you need to know shopping:
  • Aim for all cotton for the most absorbent- turkish cotton is even better, as it has longer fibers and will absorb even more.  
  • Check for no wear/discoloring at the fold lines or showing areas
  • Look for tight stitched hems on all four sides.  
  • Look for 'lint-free' 'flat weave' towels, like flour sack material, for drying dishes (and get a separate one if you plan to use it for polishing metals, etc.) 
  • Look for textured 'terry' or 'waffle-weave' towels for cleaning counters or drying hands, or any of the 'big' clean ups you may encounter.
Care is easy - just keep washing them every day or two, to prevent germs from gathering. Some people suggest you don't wash them with fabric softener or dryer sheets, which can create build up and limit their absorption ability. Others swear by drying out in the sun to keep white and fresh. I wash mine with a scoop of washing soda and a cup of vinegar added in with the small amount of detergent. Want to keep them sanitary longer? Read SheKnows, 5 Things Not To Do With A Dish Towel.
Photo courtesy of Ivy Dawned, (C) Common License, modified from original.

Oil Mister / Spray Bottle-

This 'tool', either a fancy Mist-O type pumping action mister or a dollar store spray bottle, can replace your reliance on PAM oil spray.  Simply fill the bottle with the oil you wish to use, and spray/mist on your  pans and bakeware or what have you when oiling or greasing is required.  It can also add oil to your salads or popcorn if you want an even coating instead of the 'pouring it on' method.  I've even used it to regularly oil the squeaky running wheel of a hamster (RIP Fuzzbutt.)  All of this, without having to cough up money for store-bought cooking spray every month or 3.  And speaking of coughing, ahem, don't use PAM spray because the propellant they list as there last ingredient is actually petroleum gas (10-18%), butane (7% or less) and propane (7% or less).  Don't pay good money to have that sprayed in your food.  Plus, those aerosol cans you won't be buying can't end up in the landfill.  Good feelings, all around.

If you're looking to buy, get something new (you can't guarantee the last use of a spray bottle or cleaning of a mister.)  You can choose between finding a spray bottle or a commercial mister.  In my experience, a commercial pump-up mister like Misto works better than a spray bottle, but stops working so well, itself, after some time passes.  Here's what you should consider in a spray bottle:
  • Find the smallest bottle with the widest tube running down inside.
    • Smaller makes cleaning easier
    • Smaller means less oil sits inside, and you use before it's rancid
  • Make sure the nozzle has a 'mist' option if possible, as sometimes 'spray' is a jet stream.
  • If you end up with a standard screw top sprayer, screw it in to a glass bottle, which will be easier to clean oil off.
For care, you will have to hot water clean the nozzle/sprayer regularly to keep it from clogging up (this goes for either, though commercial ones don't clog up nearly as fast, I think because of the pressure.)  I recommend you have a place to hang up or place your spritzer that's near the stove/oven but away from heat/light, and it will get used.
Photo courtesy of Anne Swoboda, (C) Common License, modified from original.

Water Filtration System (and a Reusable Water Bottle)
Your tap water production site is regularly checked by EPA and other factions to ensure its quality.  However, water sources and treatments vary, so if you just can't stand the taste of water from your tap, find yourself a water filter instead of buying bottled water over and over again. Though these filters cost money, and at least some parts need to be replaced regularly, their impact is nothing to their equivalent water output in disposable water bottles.  Did you know it takes 3 gallons of water to bottle 1 gallon of water?  Silly!  Also, more common filter companies like Brita have started take-back and recycling programs to help you recycle their filters.  So, if it helps you drink the tap water, buy the water filter.

On a side note, tap water has to conform to more standards than bottled water, so it should always be 'safe enough to drink'.  However, to find your area's water quality report card, find local drinking water information at the EPA website, or just web search for your city's name+water standards.

If you go looking to buy a filter system:
  • Read about what you want to filter out here  to determine which filtration type will do what you want it to. 
  • Consider a permanent installation if a home owner, which uses less resources over its longer lifetime. 
  • Removable or portable filtration is usually all you can do if you rent the home, but these are super affordable options.  
  • Consider other/fringe benefits of different filter systems, like how water softeners save on wear/tear/staining of everything in your home with softer water (no more scrubbing orange-stained tubs!)
Make sure to change the filter or update parts regularly, and get systems checked for costlier filtration systems. No matter the size and type of system you get, it needs to be maintained to be effective.  Drinking straight from the tap is always healthier than drinking from an ancient filter that may put more in the water than remove.
Photo courtesy of Rob Ellis, (C) Common License, modified from original.

Rubber Spatula -
Food won’t be wasted if you have rubber spatulas - think flexible food scrapers - in different sizes at the ready.  Whether using them to get the last spread of mayo, or scraping an extra muffin of batter from the sides of a bowl, these flexible wonders get you the last drop, plop, and scrape from containers.  More food put where you want it means less waste in either your garbage can or down your drain.  Also, save time and use them when making lots of sandwiches, as they spread food better and faster than a hard butter knife.  Smooth on the home-made frosting to the home-made cake to give a professional look for the party.  I've even used my hardest wide silicone rubber spatula with curved edges as a serving spoon when dishing from my ceramic pans, so they work to save your Teflon or ceramic coated cooking gear from scratches.

If you are looking to buy, consider used only if they are in really good condition - age effects their flexibility/use, especially the old rubber ones from the 80's.  I recommend getting at least 3 different sizes (batter bowl big, bakeware medium, and jar scraping small), and 2 more big ones if you're a major baker.  Here's what to look for when shopping:
  • silicone beats rubber (the silicone usually takes higher heat, stays more flexible, and purportedly holds up longer.)  
  • either all one piece, or the head and handle separate easily for cleaning (some do have the head just that tightly sealed to the handle that no gunk builds up, but it's better to know no germs are building up inside.)
  • I prefer wood handles where I can get them, as anything plastic I seem to melt, but the smallest spatulas are usually plastic stick handles.  
For one piece spatulas, and all other types, just clean after each use with soapy water.  For 2 piecers, pull apart occasionally and clean any angles or crevices with a corner of a wash cloth and really hot water.  For solid 2 parters, just check to make sure the handle and head are firmly attached and no gunk builds up.  Wood handles should be treated once or twice a year at least to prevent cracking/warp.  

We don't often think about funnels as kitchen tools, because often we are pouring things into a larger bowl or pan than what we hold.  But, if you buy much of anything in bulk or are getting into making things yourself, you will learn the NEED for a few different-sized funnels.  The 'super funnel' will let you pour flour into a smaller mouthed jar with hardly a dusting of white on the counter.  The canning funnel lets you pour nuts, grains, or homemade chocolate sauce into standard mason jars easily without waste (and it's essential when canning, too.)  The bottle funnel can be used for decanting, filling up syrup bottles, or pouring in powdered spices.  Less food on the floor is more in your tummy!

If you are looking to buy, I recommend having one 'large mouth' funnel, like a canning funnel, and one that has a 1/4" bottle spout, for moving spices or liquids into small bottles.  If you don't use funnels much, consider making funnels from plastic bottles and using them until you find your liftetime got-to-have quality funnels.  Buying cheap funnels, 3 for $1, will also get you by, but unless you really need that bottle spout, just use what you have around the house for the occasional pour.  When making your own, consider:
  • A funnel made from the "milk jug" mouth size that is symmetrical (Like V8 Splash bottles) work well for pouring bags of bulk goods items into 2-4" mouthed containers. 
  • A 20oz/2 liter bottle (or anything with same size mouth) works great for getting liquids into any jars with at least a little bigger mouth.  
  • For really small mouthed bottles to fill, you can really stretch it and use a bit of balloon. Either cut the widest part to stretch up over your 20oz cut funnel, or cut off just the length of neck and mouth of the balloon and stretch it over the mouth of your bigger funnel.  Shove the other end into the bottle to fill and it will trickle where it is supposed to go.  This may take a while, but will get it done without half the contents on the counter.  
  • If you have something powdery you need to put in a new jar, find an envelope and nip the bottom corner - pour your powdery goods in, then tilt toward the nipped corner to pour in small jars. 
Buying used funnels is an option, and is how I got my Busy Liz funnel set (an aluminum canning funnel with a screw on bottle funnel).  These aren't the greatest though, being light-weight aluminum with rolled edges that have accumulated gunk.  For the funnels that will hold up the rest of your cooking and pouring life, look for:
  • high quality metal ones (aluminum tend to dent and don't react well to acids) - the metal won't take on colors or flavors like plastic
  • You want cut straight edges, not edges that are rolled over and down and accumulate crud over time. 
  • Riveted rather than soldered handles, if any handles present. 
Clean funnels as you would any other dishes.  Use an SOS pad on plastic funnels that take on a funky smell or orange tomato tinge to help clean them up (the metal pad scrapes the top layer of plastic smooth, getting rid of the trapped particles causing smell/discoloring.)
Photo courtesy of "", Flikr, (C) Common License, modified from original. 

Cookie Scoop/Ice cream Scoop -
Though not essential, a squeezy scoop, as I call them, is a portion control cop and delightful dinner server.   For portions, you can scoop and shape meatballs, melon balls, treat balls (think rice crispy bars), chocolate truffles or crab puffs, each to the same size.  A scoop of cookie dough from this ice cream scoop makes even-sized cookies, helping to make more servings.  A scoop of muffin mix is a perfect sized muffin without the bakeover.  Serving food, especially sticky stuff, works lunch-lady style, with you able to scoop, mound, and dispense fast.  An aunt uses it to fill up stuffed peppers.  It's also handy if you have a lot of squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe or other seedy centered produce to scoop out.  And, for its original task, buying a heavy-duty ice-cream scoop for scooping ice cream means no more sad, bent spoons in your flatware drawer.

I believe the old ones with bakelite handles are the best (that is my Hamilton Beach scoop from approx 1960?) but that's because cheap metal and poor design have infiltrated the economy models of today.  Different sizes are available, though smaller ones are usually the 'handle' squeeze style, while I prefer the thumb levers.  I'm sure the top end models made today will work as hard, or harder, in the kitchen, but I've had my one scoop for a while now.  (Keep your eyes open for my post on how to remove a dent from your scoop.  My 2-b-mother-in-law dropped it on the tile floor, and the floor won.  Still works, though!) Whether buying new or used, look for:
  • An alloy metal or heavy metal design - aluminum is likely going to dent up fest
  • Tall, sturdy metal teeth on the gears 
  • Smooth movement with no hiccups or sticky points.
  • A comfortable, hard plastic (bakelite, baby) or metal handle that won't crack apart if dropped 
  • Tight fittings between all pieces (nothing feels 'loose' or 'wiggles', if you shake it, it shouldn't rattle.)
Rinse your scoop after use to make sure gunk doesn't dry on the moving parts.  Let dry before putting away so no rust starts on the moving parts.  Don't drop on tile.

A grater isn't much thought about in kitchens, as it is more for people that like spending a little time in their kitchen versus their boil-the-water Ramen brethren.  Whether slicing and grating cheese, or vegetables, or making breadcrumbs out of an old loaf of bread, or zesting lemons or ginger, a good grater can speed up some tasks and make others so much healthier.  Consider cheese grating.  Did you know that, to keep pre-shredded cheese from clumping, they soak it in chemicals on the way to bagging?  Grating your own cheese takes just a few minutes, the cheese will taste better, and bulk cheeses are often cheaper than anything you can find pre-shredded.  The grater is great for a smaller kitchen, where some tasks can be completed without the need of pulling out another appliance (save energy!) and it is much easier to clean than a food processor or electric chopper.

If you are looking for a cheese grater and would be doing larger amounts of grate work (<-- get it!) I can't help but say look for a big box grater that you can stand up and shred 2 lbs of food into the center.  For smaller families or couples, I'd recommend the IKEA brand cheese grater 'bowl' (pictured), with a plastic bowl that has 2 different sized grate lids that sit over it and shred into the bowl, and a lid so you can put extra shredded stuff in the fridge.  We have one of these dedicated to whatever block cheese was on sale-  I buy (or pull from freezer) bulk cheese every other week, and I have a tupperware next to the cheese shredder for the main cheese block and any scrap 'cheese stumps' that get shredded into other meals.

If you go out looking at graters, consider:

  • How the edges are secured - stamped metal wrapped around a metal frame often leaves a gap where particles get stuck.  Make sure the rolled over edges are tight against any framing pieces.
  • A solid handle on top, or 'sticky' bottom that will hold in it place
  • Aim for stainless steel.  The old metal graters work great, but are prone to rusting if not washed and dried right away.
  • Have at least 2 sizes - a 'shred' and a 'zest' - to make one tool do multiple jobs.  A slicing side can also come in handy for sandwich slices of cheese, or 'madeline' cuts of harder veggies (though some models just aren't sharp enough to work well.)
  • Check that the holes come to an edge and aren't just 'stamped' down, so there is a sharp edge to catch the food when grating'

To keep cheese from sticking, I've had some good results with running it under water before I shred.  The key to keeping your grater clean is not letting anything dry on it - wash/rinse it right after use.  Wash with a sponge in the opposite direction you grate - unless you want sponge bits in your sink.  Shake and wipe dry to prevent oxidation.  

Containers -
By leaving food in its original box or bag (this goes double for bulk bought items) sometimes it takes on the flavor or smell of the plastic/cardboard it is in.  Putting your foods into canisters with tight fitting seals will prevent this, and you should make sure you have a place for opened food goods to be properly stored out of sunlight, as well.  Yes, even dried goods have a shelf life, which decreases with the more air, heat, or light it is exposed to.

This doesn't even begin to cover the joys of LEFTOVERS!  More packaged for short term, actually eating ALL the leftovers from a meal will instantly save you money and prevent food waste.

You can make your own food canisters for food packaging from other food packaging (this and and some creative labeling ideas here.)  I would say buying used is the most affordable way to get big canisters, especially if negotiating at rummage sales or shopping 50% off days.  By slowly accumulating them, you will get the jar sizes you want at a few bucks each.  I decided I liked the mix up of different jars, but if you just can't help yourself and want to buy matchy matchy ready-to-go canisters, then consider:
  • Glass containers ensure no reaction to foods, no matter how long things sit in them.  The food will go bad, the glass can be washed.  Second best is PETE plastics. Plastics of lower grades start to run the same risk as the plastic bag - making your food taste a little, um, plastic-y.
  • Having a tight fitting lid is important to keep air flow at 0 inside the container.  
    • Check to make sure the material around the lid (the gasket) is flexible (some plastics used around lids are so hard, they won't flex and let tons of air through). 
    • Ensure the seal material is not sticky and doesn't smell strongly (from rubbers and plastics that have been overheated/sat too long.) 
    • Ensure the material isn't cracked or torn anywhere, and properly lines up with jar mouth. 
  • If there is a latching mechanism, see how fast you can open and close it before something goes wrong.  I bought some clearance large glass canisters with metal clasp lids for $3 to $5, only to realize that the lightweight metal bends easily and often gets stuck, making closing latches a pain.
I've seen $5.00 a piece for larger metal clasp rubber sealed lid canisters (Anchorware?) at Big Lots, and my sister bought all of her screw top 'cookie jar' style pantry jars on a day-after-Christmas sale at Target (she got 75% off, and just spray painted all the red and green lids to match.)  So, figure out what sizes you need, and go forth and collect.

For tupperware-type leftover containers, there is a lot of hype about reusing plastic containers food comes in.  Now, pthlalates are a buzz word in the community of health conscious, and I believe reducing the amount of plastic in your home is a big and important step.  However, when I know I ate something out of a plastic container that was there for days, maybe weeks already, putting leftovers in the same container for a day or two doesn't get me worked up.  Here are some thoughts on plastic leftover containers:

  • Don't microwave cheap/free plastic containers - or expensive ones at that.  Place the leftovers on the plate or bowl you will eat it off, anyway, and then heat it up.  This prevents the pthlalates from being pulled into the food during the heating process. 
  • Use things with lids, as things like plastic wrap and films are shown to transfer pthlalates more so than rigid plastics.
  • Throw out/recycle any containers that show wear, 'thinning' or melty spots, or are scratched up or have slivers of plastic showing.
  • To keep from 'pack-ratting', select one or two sizes of plastic containers (I collect sour cream/large yogurt containers) with the same 'lid' size - you won't need to the find the matching lid to use any of the plastic cups, just grab a standard lid and store it.
  • Accumulating the same thing is key for storage, so save the tupperware your deli meat comes in if you get that meat every week.  Don't save the one-off cream cheese container you'll never buy again.
  • Label the leftovers in the fridge - with masking tape, or dry erase marker writing, or whatever works for you.  Just date and label it, so you know what to use first.  
  • Make the switch to glass containers as you are able.  Because of their weight and the space they take up, glass hasn't made a lot of headway replacing plastics in leftover storage containers.  Start off easy, by buying Pyrex nesting bowls with sealing lids, which can stand in as leftover holders.  Work up to what glass containers your kitchen can accommodate.
  • If you are going to buy plastic containers, by two or three large sets of the same kind all at once.  Then, loosing lids or throwing out/recycling a few pieces won't matter, as they match up with the others you have.  This goes along with the 'accumulate similar' idea. 
So, with all that in mind, keep cooking in the kitchen and thinking about what you can do in small ways to help yourself save money, save time, save the planet, and save your health.  Next Kitchen post?  Butcher's and Baker's and Aspiring Cheesemaker's Tools! 

"Keep your food good enough to eat, because eating good food keeps you." 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Buying From Bulk

Buying IN bulk can get you over-stocked on items you can't use up before they go bad.  Which sucks.  However, buying FROM bulk is easily the most money-saving, space saving, resource saving option available to most American grocery shoppers.

There are multiple reasons to buy foods (and some pet foods/bird seed!) from the bulk section.  Number one on the list is: it's cheaper.  Other benefits include you get only as much as you need, so it's fresher when you use it.  Also, you can try new things without wasting it if you don't like it.  And it cuts down on wasteful packaging.  Here's why:

First, you are avoiding labels and brands, which means you are avoiding advertising and the companies that pay for it.  This lack of advertising is reflected in the price. The stuff in bulk is what it is, you get an ingredients list, maybe a nutritional panel, but you don't get or pay for anyone's name on it.

Secondly, you are saving not just on packaging, but shipping and handling of that item.  It is much easier and affordable to put together and ship a single box very full of a single product, rather than a box full of pre-proportioned smaller boxes.  By reducing the manufacturer/grower's amount of packaging and handling, you reduce the price.  You also reduce the amount of packaging you then throw away once you use the product.

Thirdly, as I said before, you can buy only what you will use in the time it is good.  This ensures the freshest ingredients for you, but often is why many stores won't do more items in bulk.  Many food companies package their foods for the amount an average family will go through in a set period of time.  They charge a premium for the smallest packages, because they have to sell more small packages to move the same amount of product.  For shelf stable items like flour, they pack in 1-5lb bags, the 1 lb almost always more per lb than the 5.  For grains that go stale, I've found they seem to charge the most per unit for their single-size boxes.  When you are buying bulk, you control the exact amount of what you are getting, without the price difference that accompanies branded foods.  In order for the grocery store to make money off of their bulk section, this means they have to sell to more people if the product is bought in small quantities to get through their stock before it expires.  So, do your favorite store's bulk section a favor, and pass this post along to someone who could benefit from bulk!

How to go bulk:
Who sells in bulk:
First, locate stores near you that have more than candy in bulk.  In the Mesa, AZ, I am pretty happy between Winco Grocery Store's bulk section and Sprout's bulk and spice section (the spices are located away from the general bulk, so look around the endcaps by other spices.)  Start with your local grocery stores you already frequent.  If they don't carry much in bulk, start looking for grocers that market themselves with phrases like 'natural foods' or 'supply', and see what they carry.

When I was in Buffalo, NY, I fell in love with the local Lexington Co-op on Elmwood.  They had a nice bulk assortment, and a nice priced spices section with some harder-to-find spices.  They had the most affordable vanilla beans my vodka could hope for! It was also just a really lively local business I enjoyed supporting.  So, also look for a local food co-op near you, as well.  Often times, you have to pay a a 'membership' fee, but usually it is a one-time lifetime buy-in, and your money is returned to you should you decide to leave.  

If you have a Whole Foods near you, they have a large bulk and often carry even more organic bulk items, but you pay a premium for the multiple choices.  More and more grocery chains are starting to carry items in bulks, but not all selection or quality is created equal, so pay attention to how clean the area is kept, how many people are buying from it, and what kind of products they carry.  These are clues to how fresh and clean those contents will be.

Process of buying from the bulk section:
1.  Take a plastic bag from roll.
2.  Open and pour or scoop desired amount of product into bag.
3.  Secure bag shut, either by my 'tag-a-bag' method to right, or with a twist tie, or some bags are now 'zipper' style. 
4.  Find marking device (could be a marker to write on the bag, or a pen to write on a thick twist tie) and write down the PLU number that corresponds with the product you are buying (they make the number very obvious, don't fret.)
5.  Start a new bag for each different product type.
6.  Take to register, where they weigh bag and enter its number to get how much per unit it is (and of course, then you pay for your food and eat it.)

Some bagging considerations:
Many places won't let you bring in your own containers for the bulk stuff, because they don't have a zero scale option at the tills (they can't tare).  Each purchase you make is weighed, and the computer automatically subtracts a gram or so to account for it being in a plastic bag.  This isn't great, but it is the easiest and most all-around sanitary way of doing business right now.  I did read an interesting post over at FoodInJars, about bringing your own containers.  It seems it all depends on the staff, your store's policy, and your willingness to carry stuff.  I do like the idea of reusable bulk bags like they show here, you can just wash, but I personally have to look into it more.  In the mean time, the bulk and produce bags of most stores are recyclable with plastic shopping bags, or can be used if you have a pet that goes #2 a lot where it shouldn't.  Just make sure your store hasn't switched to a 'compostable plastic', which is not recyclable but rather, you guessed it, compostable.  Usually they proudly exclaim this on the bag itself, so just keep an eye out.

As for shutting the bags of goodies, I started getting sick of twist-ties everywhere in my house.  It seemed a waste, these little strips of tin covered in paper that couldn't be recycled, and we just didn't have enough use for all them.  So, I saved up some bread bag tags.  Using nail polish remover, I got them all clear of any inks/writing.  I hooked these tabs to a keychain with a mini keychain marker I had from some gift from some time period (in other words, I have no idea where it came from).  This I attached to my coupon pouch.  Now, in the bulk section, I simply pull off a bread tag, tag-a-bag, and write down my bulk number on whatever is easiest to see on the plastic.  So far, I have to explain the 'number is written on the bag, not the tag', but no cashiers have gotten upset by my method.  And, no more twist ties going to a landfill.

And finally, if you are going to buy in bulk, you will want to start now collecting containers to put your goodies in, because the plastic bags will not keep them fresh for long.  Read my post on Budget Pantry Containers, and start collecting bottles and jars now. Oh, and enjoy that first fresh, well-priced bulk buy!