Shopping

Pinched in February

I see that I posted about the results for January as far as tracking spending on groceries and sundries. Now we’re in March, so I know that February’s spending was higher, even though it needed to be at least as low. Heck, I thought I’d failed to take it far enough in January.

Grand total in February was $718.42, which came to $643.01 after removing taxable items and tax, an inexact shortcut to reducing the number to groceries-only. That compares to a net of $543.86 for January, almost exactly $100 more.

Part of the difference is in spending on meat, assuming I recorded it accurately both months. February was $100.04 to January’s $51.50. That surprises me, but there were some good sales, and I ended up with a good amount in the freezer. This is going to help me skate through the first two weeks of March, when things will be even worse than they’ve been yet this year.

I also softened up my stance on soda, which frankly hasn’t been the source of financial damage I had assumed. Still, $42.34 and $2.95 in deposits is a lot more than $26.53 and $1.75 in deposits.

Finally, an easily identifiable anomaly was my daughter’s birthday. She wanted an ice cream cake. That was $18.99 I would never have spent normally. For dinner that day she wanted crepes with strawberries and whipped cream. I bought her fresh strawberries as a treat, on sale but still $2.99, and a 3 pound bag of frozen strawberries for the crepes. That was over $5. Not knowing what we’d need, I bought 2 spray cannisters of whipped cream, store brand, something like $2.79 each. Extra eggs, too.

Just figured out that stuff that was neither taxable nor food came to almost $32 this month, versus almost $34 last month. Almost a wash. I should probably change my spreadsheet to distinguish such things easily.

My big lesson from these two months is that we buy a ridiculous amount of cereal. I believe not buying potato chips has increased it, because it changes rather than eliminates the snacks. We also buy more tortilla chips, attributable to the same reason combined with kids discovering they love nachos. For the oldest, that is an alternate meal if she doesn’t like what I’m making.

I suspect things will level out when taken in a three month chunk, but we’ll see at the end of March. By May, money should be much less tight, but I can’t see going crazy.

Pinched

I’ve been neglecting things basically since work got intense during our peak season, then haven’t picked it back up now that work is unusually light. Between that and having spent through our tax refund and what savings I had, largely to supplement the grocery budget, we’re in a particularly tight spot. Voila, stuff to write about! Stretching the money is the whole point, here.

I’ve done some baking and meals I hadn’t normally done, and even taken a few pictures. But this post is about money itself, and tracking what we’re spending.

I started a Google spreadsheet for this year to track grocery purchases. It’s cruder than I’d like, since many purchases are mixed. Partly I can filter by figuring if it’s taxable, it’s not groceries. There are some items that are neither.

January is over, and the grand total came to $626.85. We’re a family of five. Mind you, this amount made everyone feel like they were put upon compared to normal, which suggests to me that our spending had been running a couple hundred a month more. Given that back when we were getting SNAP of about $500, I was supplementing it by about $300, that fits. The thing is, what I spent this past month was at least $100 more than I could afford.

The metric of taxable items and tax coming off for a measure of actual food makes it $543.86, but the receipts contain over $30 in non-taxable non-grocery necessities. Call it about $510, then. I’d say that we depleted the cabinets somewhat, but there’s stuff that’s been added to balance it out. Still, while cranberry sauce was inexpensive, I accumulated cans of it, and when the dust cleared there were 14 cans. We’ve used two, and probably won’t need to buy any for a few months, depending how often kielbasa or roasting chickens are on sale. The main uses are for sweet and sour kielbasa or as a side with roast chicken.

Today was the first entry for February; $68.55 total, of which $27.30 was meat on sale. Pork loin for $1.69/lb for the win. It was a trip to get cheese and butter where the price is lowest, frozen veggies for the lowest price and that are also the best, and ingredients like flour and sugar at the best available prices. Flour at the two loacal stores is $1.99 and $2.49, versus $1.69. I’d run out entirely, making bread multiple times.

We’ll see how it goes. I’d like to have the family on board with keeping this up, even when funds are more available.

$7 a Day??

Via Glenn Reynolds, things like eating on $7 a day articles really get me going. There are five of us here. That would be $245 a week! Luxury! Riches! We can afford about $100 a week, for somewhat tortured values of “afford.” Call it maybe $3 a day, then, for a person. So lucky that three of them are kids, though they’ve become a challenge to afford to feed despite their size and bodily non-fussiness about what they’ll turn into fuel and additional mass and height.

What that means is not cauliflower, not much Trader Joe’s (though that’s a good place for allergy friendly food, a part of the challenge of eating cheap I won’t even get into here), not a lot of fresh food, and devotion of more time than might otherwise be the case.

It means you buy certain things in bulk, which costs up front but extends your stocks later. It means less variety than might be the case. It means paying attention to sales or who has what at everyday best prices, but balancing that against gas and time required to go farther rather than nearer for a given thing or three.

You want inexpensive? Rice. Dry pinto beans. Flour. Store brand old-fashioned oatmeal. Dry lentils and peas. Generic goods from the store with the best unit price, based in part on what it is and how well it will feed the kids. Cheap meat. Cheap pasta. Cheap sandwich bread. Lots of sandwiches. Tuna as somewhat of a luxury, for variety.

It means you sweat over the price of cheese, but cheese is a staple, an ingredient in or centerpiece of so many meals, you can’t do without readily. Cheap means a pot of chili made with dry pinto beans and beef that was on sale for $1.99/lb. Cheap means burritos made with flour tortillas you made yourself for a fraction of the store bought cost, refried beans you made yourself, rice, maybe some corn, the cheapest meat you could get, some cheese, and sour cream at the best price you can find. Now, in reality convenience wins much of the time, even here, so it’s canned refried beans most of the time, and even store bought tortillas, though homemade are better (whereas I’ve never made refried beans as good as our favorite store brand). Burritos are a good cheap eat, as they are filling and can stretch meat and cheese further than some dishes. Pasta stretches food, too.

Yes, some of this is not as good for you as other things, but the lower you can go on some items, the more you can afford healthier items and treats.

There are some surprises. Making your own bread doesn’t save all that much. It’s just yummier. Potatoes are relatively expensive. A batch of mashed potatoes takes 5 lbs and will leave only a little left over. It’s the allergy boy’s favorite food in the world, but is mostly supplanted by rice.

It’s hard when you need to buy spices, but those are necessary for making the food tasty and interesting, and represent a low cost per meal in the long run. When we got food stamps for a year, it felt like we were swimming in grocery money. The kids were smaller, and I couldn’t use the entire $400-odd in a month, even splurging. While I buy all the 99 cent spices I can, some aren’t available that way, and food stamps made that easier. Then they sort of jerked us around and kept us off of them, which has been tough at times, and gotten worse as our income fluctuated back down. We probably qualify for a couple hundred a month, and I’m waiting to hear on our latest attempt to bother applying. Having any self-employment income means you may almost as well not bother. But I digress.

The point is, $7 a day may not be up to the standards people of means are used to, but it’s actually a substantial amount of grocery money. Thus I find these challenges amusing, or even disturbing, because they seem so unserious compared to the reality out here.

Coconut Milk

With Henry’s allergies to dairy and all nuts, he has to use soy milk. It’s a good thing he likes all things soy! To him, soy butter is as yummy and natural as peanut butter is to most of us. And he hates sunflower butter, which is vastly better. We tried rice milk along the way, but that seems to be little more than water.

Yesterday I noticed for the first time coconut milk in Walmart, in the same case with soy, nut, rice and organic milks. It was a buck more (speaking of which, at the rate milk has gone up, the differential with soy seems less onerous), but I decided it might be worth a try, and could picture it being better in something like cake. When I make a cake free of eggs and dairy, instead of all water, I generally use half soy milk and half water. Not that it matters, since he has developed tolerance enough to eat cake with eggs and/or milk baked into it, just as the allergist suggested. Yet we’ve come to like the special recipe cake better. Though ironically I cannot make it taste good in chocolate, despite chocolate being the original recipe I adapted. But I digress.

I bought one, and this morning it was time to open a fresh milk, as his old soy milk is expired. Presumably, since it’s hard to tell, besides just throwing it away after the recommended 7-10 days. The only way I seem to be able to tell, since it doesn’t develop an odor, is to taste it. If I feel like retching within the next moment or so, it’s definitely bad. My body knows what my nose and taste buds can’t discern.

I offered Henry the choice of coconut milk or soy on his cereal. He picked coconut and there was much excitement. Then as soon as I’d opened it, he said no, he didn’t want it, didn’t like it. He refused to taste it to be sure. If I’d never told him and just opened it, he’d have had no clue it was different, and might have loved it. Duh! I thought he’d be happy to try it, but he’s busily being 3, and some. Most stubborn person I know, too.

I poured a small glass so I could taste it. Man, what an improvement over soy milk! You can taste the coconut flavor, in fact it tastes much like the liquid from the hollow of a coconut, which when I was a kid we got all excited to have, despite it not, in reality, being that good. We called it “coconut milk,” but apparently that’s not the correct term.

Sadie wouldn’t taste it, after championing the new milk to Henry. Maybe that would have helped. He refused, simply declaring he didn’t like it. Valerie drank the whole thing and declared it awesome. When offered more, she opted to try it as chocolate milk. I flavored it heavily, since the coconut flavor came through. She hated it as chocolate milk. I drank it. It was good, but different. Might be better as strawberry. No word on how it would be with lime.

So… I guess I’ll be baking! Or doing something with it, even if I’m the only one who eats it. And I probably won’t buy it again, or if I do, won’t tell Henry what it is before serving it. Why fight to serve him something that costs more?

Extreme Couponing – Do You Do It?

I’ve had this couponing article queued for a while to post about. I was reminded of it recently by register coupons I received at Hannaford, including ones for $2 off an overall shopping trip and for 75 cents off a product that’s only $1.39 in the first place (which really means 75 cents off two, since it was purchase of one that provoked the coupon dispensing algorithm).

Do you use coupons at all? A lot? To an absurd degree as depicted in the article?

I stopped using all but the rare coupon years ago, for reasons of time versus money, and of lameness of most coupons.

Lame? Yes. If it’s a convenience product I won’t use, or that is expensive even with a coupon – even a serious coupon – I am inclined not to bother. If it’s a new product you want me to take a chance on for the first time, where I might never have known of it or considered buying it otherwise, it had better be more than a dime off. Or more than a quarter off, if it’s costly enough in proportion.

Granted, I have not explored the world of coupons lately, so things may have improved, and there may be online options that didn’t exist before, but frugal doesn’t mean work your tail off for little return. Or worse, to waste money.

The extreme folks depicted in the article are impressive, but they have to plan, spend time at it, and work out the storage and food rotation issues. It’s not frugal if you won’t use it. It’s not frugal if it costs you too much in other ways.

Shopping Stereotype

An appropriate Blogthings quiz for this place!

 

Your Shopping Stereotype is Economical

Cheap. Thrifty. Frugal. These are all word that you can (and likely do) use to describe your shopping style.
Why pay top dollar when you can get a bargain? You love to save money, and you’re really quite good at it too.

You’re most likely to be found shopping in discount stores, but you also know how to rock the clearance rack at top end places.
People are always complementing you on your finds, and they can’t believe how cheaply you get everything.

A Real SNAP

Over the past few years we’ve been, shall we say, financially challenged. We were never really flush. In the couple years before I married, I was barely able to support myself, but had room for more frugality and had coasted business-wise. Marriage would have helped, but circumstances meant I had to squeeze out more money without substantial career change, in order to support more of us. It would have been a bear to apply because I was self-employed via a partnership, but my income seldom strayed far above the numbers that would just qualify for assistance. Food Stamps, now called SNAP. Just never would have thought to do it, even if I’d made less – or not juggled things to appear to make more than cash flow justified, as the case may be. I spent the first few years of marriage and kids worrying beyond worry about money and what could eventually happen, but trying not to worry my spouse. Beyond what implicit awareness there was of the smoke and mirrors juggling involved. There’s a frugality move for you: Breast feeding to save the insane cost of formula.

I digress somewhat.

Eventually, well after I should have, I applied for what is now SNAP. We qualified at the time not merely handily, but for emergency alacrity. That was suddenly almost $500 a month for groceries! Out of what they computed was at least $600 a month for a family of our size.

I was amazed that the official amount was so high! I mean, I’m old enough to think of $600 a month as practically an entire income. Which would also explain why I think a grand a month in rent is the far side of insane.

We went from, well, I think I was spending on the order of $20 a week and getting random handouts of food from relatives, to all that money. (I could be misremembering, because a lot of people online donated us a lot of cash and that is where some of it went, but I was still being beyond frugal, because there were other things it had to cover.) That opened the door to losing some of the biggest and most time consuming frugality measures. Which is another post; the sheer time and energy cost of being poor/frugal. That opened the door to convenience foods being in the house more routinely. Which is another other post, how much extra it costs if you want to be able to let the kids graze conveniently.

Eventually circumstances changed enough that we’d have qualified for considerably less in SNAP, but the agency basically jerked us around to the point where I gave up on obtaining the maybe $200 a month it would have entailed. We could manage. Of course, our income has ebbed since then, overall, and it’s been tough at times.

What’s made it tougher is having gotten used to what was more money than I might have spent on groceries when I “had money” back when, it’s harder to go back. I mean, besides the kids having become locusts. Now I can see the $470 or whatever being too little, or barely enough. I reliably would end each month with at least a month’s balance left on the card. That sure made weaning off of it easier.

I still tried to be as frugal as possible, obviously, but really felt like I was cheating. When I really miss it is when I am forced to buy things like soy milk and soy butter, and when it might help in branching into some of the other allergy options like non-dairy cheese.

I expect to be on it again at some point, with only four of us in the house and my income plus whatever child support figures in being the factors. It will help tremendously, much as I’d like to remain off or move back off of it as soon as possible. [I was a little confused, reading this after all this time, but this must have been the point when Deb was going to move out, but didn’t.]

Did I have a point here? I mean, besides that for me the SNAP benefits felt like we were rich grocery-wise and that changed habits in a way that can be hard to change back? Don’t think so. Outside factors and what is customary for you can change your perception of what is or isn’t frugal, and your adaptability. I know many people would look at that $600 figure for a family of five and be surprised anyone can do it on only that much. I suspect there are people on SNAP who wouldn’t begin to know how to save massively, which was part of the formative inspiration for a blog of this focus. Other are in the trap of too little income, but also too little time. Which is why I’d want to convey as much as I can ways around both circumstances.

Enough rambling. Speaking of being too busy. If I weren’t treating writing here as a job, trying to build something, it might not be getting done. That and the kids have become easier to work around.

Update as of September 6, 2015

What actually happened with SNAP back then, near as I can tell, was that I angered the people at the local office and they blacklisted me. I tried again over the course of as much as two years, culminating with the final time I applied, turning in needed documentation on time, in person, in the presence of the person handling my case, with the stuff I turned in stamped as to when they were received. I got turned down with a notice that was probably all ready to go by that time, and was sent out to me before they would even have had time to review what I’d provided. I gave up and we did nothing else with SNAP until Deb applied in her name while waiting for long-term disability to be approved, with no income because short-term disability had expired. They fell all over themselves to give us about $500 a month. This helped hugely. They actually bumped the amount up a tiny bit when she started getting disability. Ultimately I was spending that plus maybe $300, and that left bills all being paid comfortably, and the hope of things like dentistry.

Then at renewal time in February, they checked my pay for one of the weeks after the four they ask for stubs from. It was an anomalous $150 higher than normal, due to a two week burst of volume that happens twice each year and factors into my average pay. Rather, their newly automated system checked. It bizarrely cut us to zero but left us an active account. This kind of thing had become rampant starting in 2014, with Massachusetts using an automated system of data mining to do checks on people. Someone disabled and far more reliant than we are on SNAP would work one day as a poll worker, for instance. The system would extrapolate that to a full year’s income and shut them off. The latest thing I saw indicated that Massachusetts has a participation rate of around 1% for SNAP, down from over 6% a couple years ago, without an employment change to match. Nationally the participation is in the ballpark of what Massachusetts had been. That’s clearly not right. At the same time, they have eliminated case workers from have assigned cases, so you don’t get a person who is already familiar with your situation. The poor workers are harried and can’t be happy with the changes. They were buried in work in the first place, given the economy. They never did review our case. It had to wait for the six month renewal. We clearly qualified for something, even if the prior amount had been overkill. We’ve been spending the tax refund on groceries for months! Apart from fixing cars, that’s where most of it went, and it was down to what we needed for a car emergency and ensuring a normal Christmas. So it was time to have the help again. Of course, I am philosophically opposed to programs like it, in an ideal world, but this is the world we have. I’d be happier to have a pumped economy with a free market and adequate opportunity.

So here we are, about $1200 a month below the income cutoff for SNAP, and we again get a “benefit” of $0. But they still have us on their roles, considered eligible for benefits, so anything else that uses the same metric, like free school lunch, remains available. Say what? We’re confused. This time it is supposed to be based on information provided by Equifax. Yes, a notoriously inaccurate credit reporting agency also is in the business of qualifying you, or not, for SNAP benefits. First thought was they clearly had something wrong. Or first thought after “why did we give you all that data if something else tells you what to do?” I have started to wonder if it is the savings I maintained and gradually doled out for food and car repairs and such that triggered it. They don’t seem to ask about savings when you apply, though I could swear I remember it back when I originally did. The internet says they take it into account, though, and that you have two months to spend your tax refund (made large through EIC) before it can get you shut off. That seems counterproductive, even as I can see some logic to it. If you are responsible and don’t blow it on a vacation to Disney, but use it gradually, you are penalized. At the same time, if you were that poor, you’d probably spend it fast. Some people can spend a lump sum like that breathtakingly fast. I try to put the brakes on it, because I never again want to be unable to pay a heating and electric bill, fix a car, or cope with a moderate emergency.

So as I revive this blog, it seems we face going particularly frugal again. Most of my business income for the year, as it stands, falls during a six month or so period that’s drawing to a close. We’re in a slow time of year at work, until late November, except for a couple weeks around the first half of October. It’ll be tight. But hey, that’s part of the impetus for renewing the blogging, organizing it better, and making that a big part of each day. It’s a resource that already exists and has income potential if I put some effort into it.

It’s Not Frugal If You Don’t Use It

Being frugal isn’t an absolute, but is conditional. For instance, if you use a coupon to save 25 cents on a name brand item that costs 50 cents less every day in the store brand, is it really frugal to do that rather than simply buy the store brand?

That depends.

On the face of it, I’d say no.

But what if the store brand of that particular item is just awful, as is sometimes the case, so what if nobody in the house will eat or use it? You save 50 cents, or 25 with the red herring coupon, then you throw the product away, or throw part of it away, or you suck it up and don’t throw it away, but nobody’s happy choking it down.

That’s no good.

I learned when I was still a kid, probably more like a teen, that there were things you Just Didn’t Buy. I witnessed my mother buy things we wouldn’t use, but boy it was cheap. It struck me as a horrible, wasteful thing, anti-thrifty.

The same applies to stocking up, buying in bulk, preserving, then not using all of it for whatever reason. Perhaps not getting it all eaten, frozen or preserved in time. Perhaps poor resource management, so the old food isn’t rotated so older is used sooner and newer is used later. Which also touches on the idea that being frugal can involve time and work, and time can mean opportunity cost, but that’s another post.

If you can buy the large container that’s three times the size of the small container but only twice the cost, but it spoils in the time it takes you to use a third of it, you’ve used a small container worth at twice the cost. That’s not frugal. And that may not be obvious at first, and may be something you have to learn.

Same thing with brand preferences. You can’t know that a store brand is worth it, or not, or which brand is better for the price, or which brand you’re willing to settle on for the sheer savings, without having tried them.

There are things I have strong brand preferences for, like Heinz ketchup. Sure, I can eat other brands, but for me it’s the difference between eating ketchup and eating… something that isn’t really ketchup. This doesn’t always apply to name brands. I prefer Hannaford’s private label refried beans, but none of the brands are horrible, at least until you get into the variants that try to eliminate the fat content. That becomes a calculus of preference, cost, and convenience. The convenience factor is, again, another post.

I’ve sometimes fallen into the wholesale club trap. That is, it’s a good price… in a specific brand and a large size. I’ve thrown out a lot of warehouse club food that didn’t get used before it spoiled or became boring. I’ve seen it be less per unit, if you were actually paying attention, for a smaller quantity elsewhere of another or maybe even the same brand. Before I became too broke for a club membership and that kind of bulk shopping, I became very careful what I bought there versus Walmart versus a supermarket. And there’s another other post… discussion of what venues I am dealing with as I write, for comparison with yours and the fact that your mileage may vary.

Burritos

[Edited]

One thing we eat all the time is burritos and related items. They’re easy, flexible and tasty.

The ingredients start with flour tortillas. These can be from the store, or they can be homemade. For the former, we prefer Manny’s brand Market Basket’s store brand. Usually it’s the burrito size, but the smaller ones work fine too. For the latter, we naturally like Mama Jedi’s Flour Tortillas. These are much tastier than store bought, if a lot less uniform.

That is perhaps all that is consistent about the ingredients here, though cheese is also customary. I could imagine leaving it out if there were no cheese or you were not a cheese eater (the youngest is not a cheese eater in some contexts, despite outgrowing the dairy allergy, and this is one of them). Thus the list of ingredients is mix ‘n’ match, with some combos more likely than others. Possible ingredients are:

Meat – Chicken, Steak, or Hamburger. Presumably pork, venison, etc. could work too.
Cheese – Usually shredded with a grater, normally some combination of cheddar and/or jack.
Refried beans, usually canned but can be homemade easily and cheaply.
Shredded lettuce
Chopped tomato
Corn
Rice
Sour Cream

I’ve also tried adding salsa, and if you were fanatical about onions or such those could work.

Corn or rice are potential sides, as well as potential ingredients [in practice those have become primary, due to preference of the kids, and we have abandoned lettuce and tomato for the most part]. We are more likely to use them if we don’t have beans, lettuce or tomato, or have eaten too many beans too recently.

For chicken, I thaw if needed, cut into small pieces or strips, and cook them in butter or oil I’ve heated with spices. Cook until somewhere between done enough to eat and crisped fairly well. Spices vary to taste. More can be added later in the frying. Typically I use black pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, cumin, cilantro, and a touch of powdered ginger. [I don’t remember ever using ginger! I do use Turkish oregano, which I prefer to Mexican oregano despite the context. Sometimes also paprika or chili powder in modest amounts. Amounts vary depending which meat. I sometimes add a tiny bit of powdered cloves to burger, but would never add that to chicken. Also, I left out salt.] Only the first two are what I would consider absolutes. You can also use chili powder instead or in addition. that is essentially a mix of red pepper, cumin and garlic, though somehow with a distinctive flavor I don’t seem to get from combining the individual items. You can also use some oregano, some celery flakes [I don’t remember ever doing this, though with chicken it could work] or salt, or a touch of allspice [applies more to beef, just as with cloves]. That’s just what I have tried or what comes readily to mind; the sky is the limit. You could make a more traditional poultry spiced chicken to serve in wraps with other ingredients; use the tortilla as a delivery system without pretending to be Mexican about the flavor.

For steak, I thaw if needed and then fry it whole. I either spice the butter or apply a dry rub. The dry rub came out so amazing when I tried it recently that it is likely to become my method of choice. The spices are similar to what I’d use for chicken, but stronger to be able to penetrate. You could use a grill if you have one, make a marinade, pretty much do whatever you want. Cook to your preference. I like steak well done [I’ve become less vehement but still prefer it not too rare], but it’s better if you get it off the heat still slightly pink, or at least not too overcooked. I slice it into thin/small pieces and try to ditch any fat or gristle you’d not want to run into while chewing.

For hamburger, I spice the butter [actually, I don’t normally use any butter, especially for fatty burger, and I just spice the meat], crumble in the burger and cook it up as if I were going to make scrambled hamburger, or were doing the initial prep for a store bought taco making kit. Speaking of which, taco seasoning from one of those would also work [turned out the kids hated commercial taco mix compared to my own], with or without other spices, especially in the hamburger variant. Hamburger can be stirred into the beans if you’re using them, or used as a separate ingredient. You may want to add a dribble of water to the beans to thin them and let the meat mix better. The result can also be served with tortilla chips, rather than as a burrito filling.

Chop, grate, and heat as appropriate for the other ingredients of your choice. A can of refried beans – we have a mild preference for Old El Paso, with Taco Bell probably second, but none we’ve tried are actually bad, and we prefer traditional, but low fat/no fat/vegetarian labeled ones can be okay – heats up quick in a saucepan. [We’ve come to prefer Ortega, which conveniently cost the least, at least at Market Basket.]

You’ll want a big flat frying pan. We have a round one, flat like a griddle, the kind of thing good for pancakes, which is perfect. Use that to heat your tortillas one at a time. Call it medium heat. Lay it down, give it a moment, flip it over, give it another moment. If it starts to have pockets inflate with hot air, it’s probably ready to flip or remove. The goal is to warm and soften, unless you like them crisped a bit. You can use the microwave, but they aren’t as good that way.

With the ingredients and tortillas at the ready, everyone can start piling on whatever they like. If it’s with beans, I usually put beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato if available, and sour cream. Speaking of which, we’ve found sour cream is best served with a small plastic “baby” spoon, to get dabs the right size. If there’s no beans, usually I’d smear on sour cream, add meat, rice and/or corn, and cheese.

Fold up the tortilla around the fillings, burrito style, or fold it like a taco if you like. Leftover meat, beans or cheese can be used to make quesadillas the next day.

The beauty of all this is it needn’t be spicy. When I make it, it’s usually less spicy than it probably sounds. Or you can make it more spicy. You can make them more or less meaty. You can make them vegetarian-ish, using just beans plus other ingredients. In fact, bean burritos are quite good, and can be faster to prepare.

Do you make anything similar to these? Any ingredients I’ve overlooked or ideas I’ve not tried?