Give a Gift That Keeps Giving: Shop for Charity this Holiday Season

A few years ago, Kyle and I started a pretty cool holiday tradition. While attending college full-time and working part-time, we were both on a tight budget. Like many couples, we set a spending limit on our Christmas gifts to each other so our wallets wouldn’t be stretched too thin. I first wrote about how we budget for the holidays in this post from last year. The most meaningful part of this tradition for me was that a portion of our spending limit has always been allocated to charitable donations. Every year, we each make a donation in the other’s name to a charity that is important to us. It is really important to me that even while we had very little to give, we maintained the practice of donating to organizations that worked to help those who were less fortunate than us.

I have noticed a trend over the last few years of gifts connected to charitable causes. This allows you to give an actual material gift to the special person on your list, and also support a charity whose mission you believe in. You may have seen Product (RED) items in various retailers, or you may be familiar with companies like TOMS that use a portion of the proceeds from product sales to fund charitable work. Last year, Kyle and I honeymooned in Colorado and while there, we picked up a bunch of soup kits from the Women’s Bean Project to give to family and friends for Christmas.

WBP1

The soup kits are made  by women in Denver, CO who are chronically unemployed, and the proceeds from the sale of these products go to support programs that help women develop the skills they need to get and keep a job. WBP2

Of course we picked up a few mixes for ourselves too, and I can attest to their deliciousness. If you would like to try them, you don’t have to fly to Denver like we did. You can order these and other gifts online at the Women’s Bean Project store. If soup, dip, and baking mixes and gourmet foods aren’t your thing, or if you’re shopping for a loved one whose interests lie outside of cooking, here are some other ideas for gifts that keep giving this holiday season.

BeadforLife is a Fair Trade Federation organization that helps Ugandan women sell their handmade jewelry to earn a living wage. Their online store features beaded jewelry, loose beads, shea butter body products and more.

GreaterGood.org is a website that compiles product listings that benefit multiple organizations. I love that this site allows you to Shop by Cause, so that you can choose to shop from the Hunger Site to fight world hunger, the Animal Rescue Site to fund food and care for rescued animals, the Breast Cancer Site to fund mammograms for women in need, the Rainforest Site to protect endangered habitats, or purchase from other stores that benefit causes including Veterans, Autism, Diabetes, or Literacy.

You are probably already familiar with TOMS shoes, which donates one pair of shoes to a person in need for every pair you buy. Did you know that TOMS also has an Eyewear division that provides prescription glasses to U.S. middle school students in need? Shop for really cute sunglasses at the TOMS online store to support this cause.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has teamed up with Lands’ End this year to produce hundreds of items in their online store for which Lands’ End will donate 20% of revenue to LLS. Items can be personalized with logos and monograms, as well as the LLS “Someday is Today” logo if you would like.

The ASPCA online store has a ton of great gifts for pets and pet-lovers, with or without the ASPCA logo. Some of my favorites include the DJ Cat Scratching Pad  (<- it is so worth it to click that link) and the Anti-Puppy Mills Tote.

The International Princess Project is an organization that provides much-needed resources to women and girls escaping sex slavery in India. The women are rehabilitated in sewing centers, where they produce clothing for sale in countries around the world and work to achieve lives of hope and dignity. Punjammies is a fun line of loungewear produced by the women in IPP sewing centers to fund their programs.

Shop the Product (RED) store to fund HIV/AIDS programs in Africa. Partner brands agree to donate 50% of revenue for these items to The Global Fund, and 100% of the money raised by The Global Fund goes to fighting AIDS in Africa, with the goal of eradicating the disease.

To see more ideas and links to sites that make giving back easy, check out my Pinterest board, Gifts That Give Back!

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A Few of My (New) Favorite Things

First things first, I have to give a shout out to John Robinson of Robinson Imagery, who posted a preview of our engagement photos today. Kyle and I had a blast during our engagement session this weekend, and we can’t wait to see the rest of the photos soon. Thanks John!

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I treated myself to a little spring break last week and I had ten consecutive days off work. Please don’t tell my boss; the time off was legit, but I don’t think anyone had really counted it up yet. Ten days is a lot of time, so I avoided announcing the total, in an effort to keep from shocking him and thereby causing him to change his mind. Perhaps even more shocking is that until day one of vacation, I didn’t have many plans for my time off. For the first time ever, Kyle and I both took off work and did not plan a trip. We just kind of winged it. . . and it was fantastic! A ten-day long staycation allows for a great deal of thoughtful reflection and self-discovery. Also, it provides you the opportunity to do some exploring close to home and to try out things you never had before.

New favorite thing: yoga on mountaintops.

I thought it would be fun to share a few of the highlights, so that you locals may discover some new activities and places to visit in central Virginia. If you’re not local to central Virginia, either bookmark these for your next visit or use them as inspiration to find similar things near your own “close to home.”

The Monument Avenue 10K

You would have to be a real Eeyore to not feel encouraged during this race. I really don’t like running, but I loved doing this 10K. I walked most of the way, as planned, but even as a walker you feel like a rock star. There were so many clever signs like the one above, and tons of people cheering you on from the Monument Avenue median and sidewalks. The excitement and energy was inescapable the whole way. This race really was a party, and I am so glad I did it for the first time ever this year.

Patios South of the River

I have been to Legend’s deck before, but as a new resident of the Forest Hill area, I have developed a new appreciation for the space. In the Fan and Museum District, every other restaurant has outdoor seating, and nearly every residence has a porch or balcony. This is not the case south of the James. Legend Brewing Company is my new top choice for patio drinking and dining, for their delicious locally brewed beer and for their fantastic view of the downtown Richmond skyline. Also, this is a great spot for a little carbohydrate replenishment after the Monument Avenue 10K.

Crossroads Forest Hill is also a great happy hour spot with outdoor seating and live music on the weekends. Their beer list is so good that I often think I’m dreaming when I read over it. They have a consistently excellent selection of beers there. They also serve wine and small plates during their happy hour from 4:00 to 7:00 PM.

Flight Night at Secco Wine Bar

Right now you may be thinking this post is getting a little alcohol-heavy. And you would be right. It was vacation! I’m no saint! However I promise we will get to less alcohol-centric activities soon.

But first, allow me to introduce you to Flight Night at Secco Wine Bar. Every Monday, Secco features 3-glass flights of wine. I checked it out last week with some of the VAis4Bloggers crew. For $10 you could order Dealer’s Choice, which was a mixed bag of 3 random wines. For $11 you could get the Flight of the Week, which was Spanish Reds last week. That’s what I ordered and I was not disappointed. For $12 you could choose your own 3 wines off their extensive menu. They were pretty good sized pours and I had a great variety of wines to try. It was a wonderful way to start the week. Check it out!

Homemade Non-Dairy Milks at Para Coffee

After all that booze, shall we get a tad more wholesome? Nah, that’s impossible when you’re talking about nut milks. I had to title this section Non-Dairy Milks because Kyle chuckles every time I say “homemade nut milk.” But that’s what it is! Para Coffee in Charlottesville has started making their own nut milks from almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios, and they offer these non-dairy options in their lattes and other milk-based espresso drinks. I stopped in last week and had an iced pistachio milk latte and it was a real treat. I don’t even want to see the nutritional information, so please don’t tell me how much fat is in a cup of pistachio milk. I’m not interested. That said, I personally would not have one of these nut milk lattes every day, however this is something I will try again soon. It’s so different, you have to try it at least once.

Spice Diva

I have wanted to visit Spice Diva in Charlottesville for awhile and I finally got the opportunity last week. All the spices smell so good and they offer a wide variety of things that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The blends are really unique too. I picked up an African style curry powder, applewood smoked sea salt, and a spice rub meant for meat that I want to try out in some vegetarian dishes soon. The owner couldn’t be more friendly, and I am excited to test out the exotic spices I picked up on my first trip there.

Hiking in Nelson County, VA

I already knew I loved hiking in this area, but recently I have found several more hikes that I want to try out. We have done Humpback Rocks (a few times), Crabtree Falls, and Spy Rock (as of last week). Next I want to do Cole Mountain and Mount Pleasant. I am addicted to the gorgeous mountain views that are your reward for making it to the top. What other hikes should I put on my list?

 

I have held back a few more food adventures and day trip activities that I plan to share in a separate post. My ten days off work were so packed with fun discoveries that it feels like my break was even longer than it was. We considered so many different vacation destinations before settling on staying close to home. I can’t believe I would have missed out on all the things our area has to offer, while in search of greener pastures, a plane or train ticket away from here.

Have you taken time lately to explore your own backyard?

Welcome to Paradise

I have been spending a lot of time in the Blue Ridge Mountains lately. So much that I kind of want to rent a cabin up there for the weekends. The scenery is beautiful, the hikes are challenging, and the food and beer is all that I could ask for and more. It’s no surprise that Kyle and I have chosen to get married out there. With all of the meetings and planning we have to do, I am sure that by October we will feel like locals.

Of course we always try to hit our favorite spots while we are in the area, and because I have spent extra time there lately I have even discovered a few new favorites. I used to think that my best-ever Blue Ridge discovery was Blue Mountain Brewery, or perhaps Shenandoah Joe. However a new-to-me local establishment is vying for the top spot: The Cheese Shop. This place is a bulk food wonderland! The shop itself is smallish, larger than a convenience store but much smaller than a grocery store, and it is packed with aisle after aisle of pre-portioned bulk foods. I went in with twenty dollars – check out how far that got me!

This might not seem like much, but when you see the prices on these items which would usually be splurges for me, you’ll see what I mean about how far I stretched my twenty dollars. I feel like I made out like a bandit.

  • Dried Tomatoes – 0.61 lb for $3.00
  • Organic Amaranth – 0.84 lb for $1.82
  • Buckwheat Flour – 1.67 lb for $3.11 (X2 – one for me and one for a friend!)
  • Golden Flax Seed – 1.36 lb for $1.75

 

  • Carob Chips – 1.3 lb for $2.94
  • Crystallized Ginger – 0.64 lb for $2.86
  • Chia Seeds – 0.17 lb for $1.47

I think I did pretty well. Now I just have to figure out what to do with all this stuff! Several of these ingredients are new to me, so all suggestions are welcome. What’s your favorite way to use amaranth? Buckwheat flour? Carob? Chia?

Next time you’re in Augusta County, VA, I recommend that you make a trip over to the Cheese Shop. Since receiving this suggestion from a customer, I have collected a few more tips on great bulk food stores in the same area, so I may have more favorites to report soon.

The Cheese Shop is at 2366 Tinkling Spring Road in Stuart’s Draft, VA. Open Mon-Fri 9-5:30 and Sat 9-5. Closed Sunday. Visit them on the web at thecheeseshopva.com.

 

How to Eat Great Food Without Breaking the Bank

Hola, amigos. How was your weekend? I have been super busy lately with traveling, working, and endless chores. It hasn’t all been work though – I have been trying to enjoy the last bit of summer before it’s but a distant memory. Because I have been so busy on the weekends lately, I haven’t made it to my favorite farmers market in a few weeks, which has left a great void in my soul. I’ve been a regular at the Tuesday evening Byrd House Market for the last month, but it just is not the same.

Brittany did a great post a little while ago about meal planning and grocery shopping and I have wanted to weigh in with my food shopping strategy ever since. As I am trying to ease back into my normal shopping routine, I thought now would be a great time to share how I turn my hard earned dollars into nutritious meals and snacks in la casa de veg:ology. I hope that you find these tips helpful in your own quest for real food on a budget.

Farmers Markets

My shopping journey each week starts at the farmers’ market. This is a great place to find fresh seasonal produce at the right price. There are many benefits to eating seasonal, including cost savings and better nutrition. I usually visit Victory Farms at the SOJ Market first, because I have my CSA there. Read more about my CSA here. I love going to the farmers’ market because I enjoy interacting with the people who grow my food. It is a great way to learn more about where your food comes from and the best ways to prepare it. People always complain about all-natural and organic produce being too expensive, and the farmers’ market is a great place to buy this food directly from the growers and avoid the markup applied by the local food grocery store. I have found that the prices are far better at the market than they are in town.


Planning and Prepping

On Saturday afternoons, I usually look at all the produce I have from the farmers’ market and start to plan meals. I also wash and dry all the produce that needs to be washed. Some things like berries should not be washed until you are ready to eat them, but I wash off most of the other things I bring home from the market.

It is important to make sure everything is thoroughly dried before storage, to reduce the risk of mold and bacteria growing on your fruits and vegetables. As the produce dries, I plan my meals based on the seasonal produce I have. I make grocery lists to avoid the overspending that usually results from aimless grocery store wandering. This book, Simply in Season, has been a fantastic resource for meal planning.

I try to plan for well balanced meals that incorporate adequate nutrition, especially considering protein since Kyle and I follow a vegetarian diet. Once you start to shop more for groceries, you realize how relatively expensive ingredients are. I choose recipes with shorter ingredient lists and try to avoid expensive items, like produce that is out of season or rare imported ingredients. It is also helpful to choose recipes that are somewhat similar so you can benefit from buying ingredients in bulk. For example, I may make stir-fry with brown rice one night, then use the leftover rice to make a brown rice pizza crust the next night.

I have been buying more and more organic ingredients, as much as I can afford, but not everyone can do that. They do tend to be more expensive and while the farmers’ market helps alleviate the cost, some items need to be store-bought and you can’t always afford to buy organic. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen and clean fifteen (TM) to help you plan and prioritize your organic and non-organic food purchases.

Store Shopping

The best advice I can give you for food shopping at the store is to shop around. Look up the weekly sales and shop around town to get the best price on the items you need. I know that some staples are cheaper at Trader Joe’s than anywhere else, so I make the trek out there once or twice a month to stock up. When canned certified organic beans go on sale at Kroger, I fill the bottom of my shopping cart.

I also pay attention to lower-cost substitutes. While we have beans on the brain, let’s consider cannelini (white kidney) beans. These are delicious beans that are sometimes more than twice the cost of most other beans. I do not know why they are so much more expensive, but I do know that great Northern beans make a great low-cost substitute. Green bell peppers are often half the cost of red bell peppers. And honestly, green bell peppers usually make a fine substitute for most recipes that call for red. Do not be so laser-focused on picking up the items on your list that you ignore the lower cost substitute on the same shelf or aisle.

If you are the type of person who lacks laser focus on sticking to the list and you always end up spending more than you intended to, try online grocery shopping. I occasionally use Relay Foods and it is really helpful when I am too busy to shop or when I am sick and can’t make it out to the store. Online grocery shopping reduces the amount of impulse shopping you may do in the brick and mortar store, and it allows you to shop around for better prices.

Cooking and Eating

Making things ahead of time really works to help you stick to your meal plan. Some nights I don’t want to wait 50 minutes for brown rice to cook, so I am tempted to call something in. Make your longer-cooking dinner components ahead of time (earlier in the week or the night before) to avoid the takeout temptation. Carry-out food is almost never as nutritious or economical as making your meals at home, so limit the frequency with which you eat your dinner out of a box. I try to only make exceptions for certain healthy things that I simply can’t make myself, like vegetarian sushi.

Another thing you can do to save money is make large batches and freeze leftovers for later. I always make ten servings of chili at a time. Having some frozen bowls of chili, soup, or curry in the freezer is especially handy on nights when you get home too late to cook or days that you want to bring a hearty lunch to work. Remember to exercise portion control and stop eating when you are full and you will find yourself with a lot more leftovers for healthy lunches and quick dinners.

I also try to go homemade on the items that are typical takeout traps for me. I’m not perfect at this, but my goal is to do this more often because it really saves money. I do the following things to keep me from shelling out dough on impulse food purchases:

  • Make morning coffee or tea at home, hot or iced overnight
  • Bring a water bottle with you everywhere
  • Pack snacks for work or errands and keep granola bars in your car
  • Make breakfast at home (Try my recipes for oatmeal breakfast cookies and overnight oats)
  • Bring your lunch to work – great excuse to splurge on a cute back-to-school lunch box!

Apple, er... Asian Pear for the Teacher?

I hope you find these tips and tricks helpful. Since my routine has been turned upside down for a few weeks, I have been craving normalcy. I also have not been feeling that great. I think it has a lot to do with later dinners, eating on the run, skipping the gym more than I would like to admit, and overdoing it a bit on the caffeine. I should be back on track with my normal meal planning and food shopping routine within a week, and I am looking forward to getting back into the swing of things. I’m also thinking of starting a food journal to better understand my relationship with food and its effect on my body.

Have you ever kept a food journal? What did you learn?

Do you have any tips on eating great food on a budget?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Have a great week!