Taking Life One Step At A Time

Taking Life One Step At  A Time

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Room for the Lego Enthusiast

Little plastic bricks of varying shapes and sizes. Red, yellow, green, blue, gray, black, and white. Hair pieces, heads, weapons, legs, and head gear. Wheels and gears, windows and doors.

If you know what I'm talking about then you must have at least one lego enthusiast in your home. I have six, counting my husband and not yet counting our youngest child! Lego has exploded in my home. My children save money to buy lego, they ask for it for gifts, and a visit to a lego store is like stumbling upon the holy grail.

With so many lego enthusiasts, we decided to swap out our guest room for a lego room. About a year and a half ago we made the switch and I have never done a better thing for my sanity. For the most part, we let the kids go wild in there. They rarely clean it, and aside from our board games and a file cabinet, the room is completely devoted to lego. Lego is expected to stay in the lego room. No more vacuuming little pieces, no more death by lego for unsuspecting feet.

We began by putting a large table in our lego room (see pic above). It was our old kitchen table. We figured the kids would be able to use the surface for building and keep most lego off the floor. Wrong! Instead, they all fought over the space on the table. One would start a big project and then the others wouldn't have room for their buildings. We have now moved to a different solution.

We purchased six of these end tables from Ikea for $7.99 each.

To spruce them up a bit, I painted each child's initial on a table. That way we can avoid all the squabbles over who gets to build where. Each child now has their own place to build.

Originally, we had also put up a long shelf in the lego room. This was for those special projects that the kids just weren't ready to tear apart yet. Our kids are really into Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Hobbit. So naturally they have purchased many sets from those movies. Instead of building the sets once and then tearing them apart, we allow them to keep the sets on the shelf and bring them down for play. As they find they don't play with particular sets, they can pull them apart and place the pieces in a labeled ziploc bag. That way each kid knows which sets are theirs and they also keep all the pieces together. As adults they can either bring those lego sets to their own households or they can choose to sell them online. (We also keep the original boxes flattened in storage in case the kids want to sell the sets someday.) We found recently that one shelf was not quite enough, so we added a second.

Now, here's the part that really is up to individual preference. How do you store all the lego?? We used to keep our lego in a giant rolling toolbox. The special pieces went in the top compartments and the rest was in a big jumble. Our kids grew very frustrated wanting to find specific pieces but having to look through such a large mass of lego. In setting up our lego room, we decided to organize by type. We went to Menards and bought this wall system.

Originally we used double sided tape to place a piece of each type on the front of each container so the kids would know where things went. Those pieces have long since fallen off, but the kids still remember where the pieces belong. They have sorted them by size (1x4, 2x1, 4x4, etc) and by type (windows and doors, people, weapons, gears, etc.). It works well for us and is actually the way the professionals sort their lego.

We also have this little set of drawers to keep specialized parts in.

Lastly, we keep binders full of the directions that come with various sets. Without a specific place for these, we found that direction packets would often get trampled underfoot and end up ripped or crumpled. That just results in frustration for everyone!

We love the function of our lego room. And as a mom, I love the creativity that I see in my kids through what they build. If allowed, our kids would spend hours upon hours playing with lego. It has cut down on our kids' desire for video games and other less-healthy play. And it allows their imaginations to run wild.

Do you have specific ways to deal with the lego monster at your house? I'd love to hear about it!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Monthly Grocery Planning

We are a family of 8. We go through at least one gallon of milk a day, two loaves of bread every three days, and a bunch of bananas in one sitting. And we strive to live on a budget. We are a meat and potatoes kind of family. We enjoy all the food groups and don't partake in any fad diets. We simply eat healthy and in moderation. Even so, it's a lot of food!

Our oldest kids are entering the teen years and all six seem to grow non stop. I can't begin to count the number of times a day I hear the words, "I'm hungry". So, how do we keep our kids fed and not bust the budget? I can't give credit to couponing, because I really just don't take the time to do it. While I love the idea of coupons, I find that I end up buying unnecessary items just because I can get them cheap. In reality it doesn't really end up saving me money. Many people can do it well, but not me.

Instead of using coupons, we are careful list makers. We do our big grocery shopping once a month and aside from trips to the store for milk and produce, we agree to live on what we've purchased at the beginning of the month. I'll be honest, this takes a lot of planning and consideration. But you'll also find that it drastically cuts down on eating out and last minute runs to the store where buying just that one needed item is exchanged for a handful of things that look good.

So, to the nitty gritty details:

At the start of the month, I sit down with our family calendar and our meal calendar. Our meal calendar is just a regular 12 month calendar that hangs on our fridge. We write in each square what we plan to eat for dinner that evening. As I plan out our days, I keep our family calendar in front of me so that I can easily see what evenings may be rushed, when we have dinner with friends planned, when I may need to cook for a potluck or large event, etc. Now that our soccer season is starting back up, I am careful to plan crock pot meals on practice days so that my son can have a warm meal after his dinner-time practice. I know that Sundays are a time when my kids come home from church STARVING, so I either plan to have something cooking while we're at church or plan a meal that can be put together quickly once we arrive back home.

As a side note, I don't often plan out the sides for our meals unless it's a side I rarely make or if I'm hosting guests or planning a holiday feast. We keep lots of canned and frozen veggies and fruit on hand from our summer garden. I simply use these to supplement our meals.

Once my meal plan is complete, I begin a list of the basics we'll need. This usually means that I write down the various types of meats, noodles, canned goods, breads, etc. that we'll need and then count up how many of each I need for the meals planned that month. This is the most important stage of the process. Careful list making is necessary so that you are sure to have the ingredients on hand when you make meals throughout the month.

After I've made a list of the basics, my husband and I go through the freezer and pantry together. We take into account the things that we already have in on hand. Last month we found a great sale on chicken breasts so we purchased MANY and didn't have to buy any for this month's meals. If we find something during this process that needs to be used in the near future, I may adjust a meal on the calendar to fit it in. Better to adjust and use the things you already have than to waste the money and have it go bad.

We typically do our household goods shopping at the same time as our grocery shopping. So I also take the time to go through our bathrooms, kitchen, and storage areas to check on things like paper towels, detergent, toilet paper, napkins, dish soap, shampoo, etc. These things all come out of our grocery budget so it's important to plan for these items as well.

Aside from the actual shopping, the job is nearly done. I make one more neat list to take to the store. This one is laid out by department - produce, meat, dairy, frozen, etc. It makes it simpler to find the things I need in the store and to make sure they get crossed off my list. Especially if we are shopping at several stores in one day.

I know this leaves some questions unanswered. I'll do my best to answer the ones I can think of:

Where do you shop?
We shop in several places. We have a Sams membership and buy a lot of bulk items there. (Buying in bulk is definitely cost effective if you'll use the items in a timely way and can store it in your house.) We also like Aldi's. They actually have really good bread, yogurt, cheeses, and produce. I can't vouch for the meat, although I've heard some say that it's great. We just haven't tried it yet. We purchase our milk, oj, bananas, onions, and potatoes at Kwik Trip (gas station). They have milk and oj in a bag - which is so much cheaper and more convenient to store - and a rewards card so that you save quite a bit of money. We have our own chickens, so we never need to purchase eggs. We also buy several things at the Bent and Dent (Amish run store) nearby. If you have a Bent and Dent, check it out! I wouldn't recommend things like pasta or mixes that are not kept in a sealed plastic bag. However for cereal, medicines, canned goods, etc. it is an invaluable source! We can buy a large box of Cheerios there for $1.50 and a box of flavored oatmeal for $.75. That's a great deal!

How do you store all this stuff?
We've allotted a few shelves in our basement as grocery shelves. It's also where we keep our canned goods from the garden. One of our kids loves to organize, so he keeps it all sorted for us.

Isn't it a pain to be locked into your meal plan each day of the month?
I wouldn't say we're locked in. We do try to use the plan we have, but if I find we're not in the mood for something or if we need to change things around it's not a big deal. Once you've purchased what you need for the month, you just defrost or pull out what you need for any of the meals on the list. You only want to be careful that you're not stuck with tacos three times in the last week because you've switched things around so much.

How much do you spend?
The amount we spend varies each month. It really depends on how much we already have in store before the month begins (like with the chicken) and where we shop. Depending on where we purchase various items our bottom line looks different each month. (That may not be a satisfying answer, but the answer to this question will vary for each family. Just because one person can shop for a family of four on $60 per week doesn't mean every family of four can.)

How do you keep from overspending?
This is probably a whole blog post in and of itself! We use cash. At the beginning of the month we allot a specific amount to groceries. If we run out, then we make do with what we have. If we have extra it's exciting to put it towards our savings at the end of the month.

Would this work for a small family?
Absolutely! This kind of meal planning is great because you can tailor it to your family and your calendar. And it's great for a home with two working parents. It allows you to avoid the evening squabble over dinner plans and the financial strain of eating out frequently.

Happy planning! If you have tips on grocery shopping and meal planning, I'd love to hear them!