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How we frugally shop for groceries with 0 food waste (and without eating beans!)

How we frugally shop for groceries with 0 food waste (and without eating beans!)

Eating frugally for those of us who hate beans

I’m fortunate that we are a 2 person household with no picky eaters (except for my aversion to beans and rice). We can adjust what we cook and what we eat based on what’s on sale when/where we do our twice a month grocery run. We also only buy certain foods when it is in season and at its cheapest and freshest. That means lots of fresh veggies and salads during spring/summer, stone fruits, melons, and berries in the summer, and lots of root vegetables, stews, baking, pasta, and curries in winter.

Our total monthly grocery and household bill for 2016-2017 ranges from $240-$310 per month for two adults. Although I have plans to be more precise each year, my adhd gets the best of me and I always forget to separate out our miscellaneous household purchases. This means that the $240-$310 also includes things like coffee from TJ’s, giant jugs of whiskey and gin from Costco, grains for our 3-8 chickens, dish soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, and shampoo. Our actual food costs are lower than the amount stated.

We don’t eat out (except for the super awesome jumbo combo pizza from Costco) so that total includes every bit of food we eat and drink for the month. Mom and I take turns cooking. She’s in charge of Chinese or Asian dishes while I’m the baker and Western cook in our family.

We supplement our meals with herbs that I grow in our indoor/patio garden. Fresh herbs and spices can make anything tasty, but spending $3 on a tiny bunch of herbs is not frugal! Herbs like rosemary, mint, and thyme can be grown from cuttings and overwinter well indoors. Basil, cilantro, and parsley will need to be seeded and replanted every year, but we let a couple plants grow old and bolt to seed every summer so we never have to buy seeds.

We also raise our own chickens so on most days breakfast comes from the eggs laid by our 3 silkie hens. Occasionally we have a meal from the young chickens that we hatch from Trader Joe’s eggs. We butcher at around 4 months old and while these chickens are not ‘meat breeds’, we do end up with a 1.5-1.75 lb. chicken which is enough meat for dinner for 2 adults plus chicken stock from the bones. It’s a bit of extra work, but we like knowing that these chickens were raised humanely and had a good life with plenty of fresh food and sunshine and playing with their flock. There’s just something awfully wrong with factory raised chickens, both in terms of taste and animal welfare, so we only eat chickens that we raise ourselves.

We’re also not the type who can eat beans and rice day in and day out. Well, my mother is, but I think beans taste like a mouthful of dirt. The only beans I like are adzuki beans or mung beans in desserts and chickpeas. None of these are very frugal options in our area, so they’re not a staple in our diet.

We try to make sure that we have one meal with meat every day. Unfortunately we are weak compared to most frugal families as we succumb to the allure of a ribeye steak or filet mignon every week. Since we’re from a coastal area in Asia, we also love things like lobster and scallops. And if it’s Alaskan king salmon season–yikes! We usually end up with a grocery bill over $300 during late summer and early fall. If we end up with a higher grocery bill one month, we’ll adjust accordingly the next month and switch to a cheaper cut like pork shoulder or beef flank instead.

While I’m a big fan of bargain hunting, it’s just not worth it when it comes to animal proteins. You really do get what you pay for and I don’t want to risk a bout of food poisoning just to save a couple dollars. As you can see, we have to save money elsewhere by bargain shopping and being on the alert for clearance sales.

How we buy fruit, vegetables, and pantry items for pounds/dollar

By keeping an eye out for super deals from our local ethnic markets and farmers’ markets, we can buy enough fresh fruit and vegetables for a month for $10-$25! Here’s how we get our fresh fruit and vegetables super cheap:

  • Ethnic markets, especially Asian and Mexican markets have super deals on produce. This is usually stock that may not look pretty enough for regular grocery stores, but it’s perfectly fine as long as you know what to look out for (look for crisp vegetables, stems on fruit, and avoid anything soggy or mushy or bruised)
  • Farmers’ markets offer the freshest seasonal produce, but they’re awfully expensive compared to regular grocery store prices. We wait until the farmers’ market is about to close. At that point, a lot of vendors are willing to unload their merchandise for a couple of dollars. We’re talking pounds and pounds of fruit for just $1-$2.
  • Keep an eye out for clearance sections in your regular grocery store. About two years ago, we noticed that one of our local grocery stores would heavily mark down things like 32 oz. tubs of yogurt to $1 when it’s within a month of the expiration date. They also had a 90% off clearance section for things like organic pasta sauce, quinoa, and flour even though the items were 8+ months from expiring. Maybe the packaging was damaged or they ran out of shelf space? Shrug. I never noticed anything wrong with the clearance items. We’ve never paid full price for these items since our discovery.

How we maintain a zero food waste household and never, ever waste any food

Despite bulk buying a lot of fresh produce, nothing goes to waste in our household. Ripe fruit gets turned into jams, preserves, sorbets, or pies. Scraps or anything that’s ‘too ripe’ for our tastes goes to the chickens as well as things like eggshells and mussel shells. Meat or vegetable scraps that the chickens won’t touch goes to feed the mealworms and crickets which ultimately get fed to the chickens.

What about the stuff that we can’t feed to the chooks? We either freeze it or preserve it. We also organize our fridge in a first in first out order so we never have to worry about finding spoiled food at the back of the fridge.

  • Yogurt – Yogurt is one of those foods that can be kept in the fridge for another month after the expiration date. It can also be frozen and thawed without any effect on texture or mouthfeel. On the other hand, DO NOT freeze/thaw sour cream or low-fat cream cheese. The results are not pretty…
  • Milk – Also freezes and thaws nicely. Just give the thawed milk a stir to redistribute the cream.
  • Butter – Our local grocery store marks down their butter about 2x each year. We stock up and buy 10-15 pounds each time. Butter freezes and thaws well.
  • Cheese – Dry and aged cheeses can be kept in the fridge for a long time. They can also be frozen without too much change in texture.
  • Onions, sweet potatoes, ginger, garlic, root vegetables – Can be stored for an additional 1-3 months if kept in a cool and dry cupboard. Ginger and garlic can be frozen, just remember to peel and/or slice them. We also make a garlic and ginger paste with oil and salt that we keep in the fridge. It’s convenient for Asian and Indian dishes and it keeps for a couple of months. Make sure to add enough salt to keep mold and bacteria from growing!
  • Vegetables like zucchini, spinach, kale, broccoli – We keep about 3-4 days worth of veg in the fridge and then wash and freeze the rest. The thawed vegetables won’t be good for salads, but you can still use them for  soups, stir-fry dishes, and things like spinach pie.
  • Cabbage, Napa cabbage – We buy about 6-8 heads at a time and keep them in the fridge. The trick is to eat the outer leaves in rotation so none of the heads begin to mold or dry out. We also make our own kimchi and sauerkraut.
  • Cucumbers – Pickle the excess.

Some vegetable scraps can be planted again. While you won’t be able to get an exact replica of the parent plant, you can eat the regrowth.

  • Get double the amount of scallions for the price of one! Leave about 1″-2″ of the white ends of your scallions. Keep the root ends in a glass of water on your windowsill. Within a week you’ll get new growth. We usually get 1-2 extra cuttings before the plant dies.
  • Don’t throw away the dry and tough ends of sweet potatoes! Plant them in soil and eat the greens like kale or spinach. They’re great in a stir-fry or soup. Don’t do this with potatoes as they’re nightshades. Sweet potatoes only! If you live in a place with a warm winter, leave the plants in the ground and you should have sweet potatoes next spring!
  • Are your potatoes turning green and sprouting? Don’t throw away the chunks that you’ve cut out. Plant them and you might get some potatoes. We only have a patio garden, so the best result we’ve gotten is a bunch of baby potatoes in a pot. I’m sure if you have a garden with the right soil and environment that you can get grocery store sized potatoes.
  • Start an herb garden with cuttings – Leave a couple leaves on your sprigs and keep them in a glass of water on your windowsill. Plant the herbs after you see root growth. You should never have to buy that herb again. This works for most herbs except dill, sage, parsley, and coriander which grow from seed.

In the future when we buy a house and have a our own garden, we can be self-sustaining when it comes to chickens, eggs, and certain produce. Until that day comes, we do have to spend a bit more on fresh fruit and vegetables and unfortunately we will have to support the egg industry.

Here are the price limits that trigger the buy response in my frugal (cheapskate) heart

While it looks like a hassle to wait for clearance sales and to coordinate what we have in stock in our pantry, it’s actually pretty easy. We do all of our grocery and household shopping at Costco, Savemart, Trader Joe’s, Walmart (for ibotta rebates), 99c Only, and our local Chinese, Mexican, and Korean markets. Fortunately, the grocery stores in our area are all located in clusters so we can visit 3-4 stores in a 2 hour trip.

Fruit and Vegetables

  • Bananas – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market or $0 ($0.25 ibotta rebate pays for 2 bananas and puts a couple cents in your pocket!)
  • Tomato – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market or $0 ($0.25 ibotta rebate pays for 1 tomato and puts a couple cents in your pocket!)
  • Avocados (large) – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market or $0 ($0.25 ibotta rebate)
  • Cabbage – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Napa Cabbage – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Kale – $1/2 bunches @ local ethnic market
  • Spinach – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Onions – $1/8 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Apricots, peaches, nectarines – $1/3 lbs. @ local farmer’s market during the summer (We wait until the market is about to close. The vendors will practically give away their fruit!)
  • Ginger – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Sweet Potatoes (the Japanese purple kind, not the yucky orange ones!) – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Bell Peppers – $1/4 peppers @ local ethnic market or 99c store
  • Fancy Schmancy Salad Lettuce – $1.00/4 heads @ 99c store.
  • Baby Asparagus – $1.00/lb @ 99c store
  • Frozen Mixed Veggies (Green Beans, Peas, Carrots) – $3/4 lbs.
  • Oranges – $1/8 lbs. @ local ethnic market or 99c store
  • Artichokes – $1/6 artichokes
  • Celery – $1/3 stalks @ local ethnic market
  • Broccoli – $1/3 heads @ local ethnic market
  • Cucumbers – $1/6 lbs @ local ethnic market
  • Zucchini – $1/4 lbs @ local ethnic market
  • Key limes – $1/4 lbs @ local ethnic market

Pantry

  • White Sandwich Bread (1 loaf) – $0.63 (after $0.25 ibotta rebate). We usually bake our own bread, but sometimes I just want a grilled cheese with squishy white bread and processed American cheese!
  • Starkist/Chicken of the Sea Tuna (5 oz. can) – $0.77
  • Eagle Brand Condensed Milk (10 oz. can) – $1.25
  • Coconut Cream (14 oz. can) – $1.00 @ 99c store
  • Carnation Evaporated Milk (12 oz. can) – $1.00 @ 99c store
  • Dried Cranberries (64 oz.) – $4.50 @ Costco
  • Almond Butter (12 oz. jar) – $4
  • Pasta Sauce (25 oz. jar) – $0.80
  • Dried Pasta – $0.50/lb ($0.50 ibotta rebate)
  • Yeast – $2.50/lb @ Costco
  • Quinoa – $1.00/lb
  • Wasabi Almonds (16 oz.) – $5.99 @ Walgreens

Dairy & Meat

  • Jarlsberg Cheese – $5.50/lb @ Costco
  • Tillamook Cheddar Cheese – $2.50/lb
  • Butter – $2.50/lb
  • Yogurt (32 oz. tub) – $1
  • Almond/Coconut Milk (1/2 gallon) – $1.99 (after $1.00 ibotta rebate)
  • Sliced Sandwich Meat (Ham/Turkey, 8 oz.) – $1.00 @ 99c store
  • Tillamook Ice Cream (1.75 qt) – $3.99
  • Eggs – $2.99-$3.99/5 dozen @ Costco
  • Whole Milk (1 gallon) – $2.49 (after Checkout 51 rebate)
  • Frozen Pizza (Jumbo) – $9.99 @ Costco (We get the pizza from the food court, split them into 2-3 slice portions, and freeze them. This gives us about 6 portions. Reheat the pizza on a pizza stone or a cast iron griddle and they’ll be just as crispy as fresh pizza.)

How to start a cricket farm for under $3 and feed your chickens frugally

Title Image - How to start a cricket farm for under $3. Feed your chickens frugally. Never waste money again on crickets from a pet shop.

Never waste money again on crickets from a pet shop!

I mentioned in the frugal chicken feed post that we also raise crickets to supplement our chooks regular feed. While crickets are not the easiest feeder insect to raise–they jump and escape all over the place–they do provide a good change of pace from mealworms. Escaping crickets are also a good source of entertainment and exercise for pampered backyard chickens.

This is the way I grew my tiny starter colony of 20 crickets to the thousands within a couple of months. Try to resist feeding too many of the crickets in the first two generations before they’ve bred. Your chickens will beg, but you’ll be thankful you resisted when you find yourself with more crickets than you know what to do with by the third generation. Try to feed your crickets with a variety of vegetables and protein sources. Remember that the nutrition your chickens get from your crickets is only as good as what you feed the crickets.

Crickets on a piece of asparagus.
Baby crickets eating asparagus stem in a salad container.

What you’ll need and how much it’ll cost.

  • A rearing container. A regular salad tub–such as the big ones from Costco–will be enough until your cricket population gets into the 3rd generation. Once you have hundreds and thousands of crickets to handle, you’ll want to upgrade to a deep Rubbermaid storage container (or use one of those 20 lb kitty litter tubs if you’re cheap like me!) The important point is to make sure that your container has smooth plastic sides so the crickets can’t climb up. You will also need to poke air holes into the lid (if you’re using one) or use tightly woven metal mesh screen to cover the top. The holes in the screen should be smaller than 1mm, otherwise baby pinhead crickets can escape. Do not use plastic window screen as the crickets will chew holes in the plastic and escape all over your house! Cost: $0 (if you’re a tightwad like me!)
  • A smaller egg rearing container that fits into your outer rearing container. Once your crickets start breeding, you will need a small plastic box (like the ones pet stores use to sell 10-20 crickets) or a small Tupperware tub or yogurt tub so your crickets can lay their eggs. You will also need to fill this tub with some substrate like moist soil, peat moss, or sand. I prefer moist sand since soil and moss can harbor fungus gnats and grow moldy. The top of this container will need to be covered with a regular wire mesh screen so the female crickets can stick their ovipositors into the soil and lay their eggs (this video shows how crickets lay their eggs). You need to cover the egg tub since male crickets will dig out the freshly laid eggs and eat them. If you’re stingy like me, you can also use an old dryer sheet and a rubber band instead of buying wire mesh. Cost: $0 for cheapos who reuse.
  • Another big rearing container. Once you have a bunch of cricket eggs, you’ll want to remove the container of eggs from the adult rearing container and move it to another separate rearing container where you will incubate the eggs and let the young juvenile crickets hatch. Again, you’ll want to use a lid with lots of air holes or a very tight screen. Cost: $0 if you reuse.
  • Scrap cardboard. Crickets are carnivorous and will eat each other if they are overcrowded. Thus they need lots of nooks and crannies to hide out in. Paper egg cartons are perfect for this as is corrugated cardboard folded like a fan. Cost: $0
  • Some paper towels to line the bottom of your rearing container. One benefit to raising crickets is that you don’t need to provide a substrate unlike mealworms that need grain bedding. While you can technically just leave the bottom of your rearing container exposed, I learned the hard way that this is a good way for frass (cricket poop) to build up and get stuck. This means lots of scrubbing and scraping and bleach every time you clean out your cricket bin. It’s better to line the bottom of your container with paper towels so you can just remove the paper each time and your bins will be 90% poop free. Cost: $0
  • Food scraps. Crickets eat tough veggie scraps that even our chickens won’t touch. Occasionally you’ll want to give them some source of protein like meat trimmings and gristle. Other people feed their crickets fish flakes, cat food, or dog food, but I’m a cheapskate. They’ll grow fine on just veggies, but much faster if you give them some meat. Cost: $0 for frugal folks.
  • Crickets! The most important part of all. You can get away with a starter colony as small as 20 crickets. We started our cricket farm with 25 crickets from Petsmart. We even got rid of most of the male crickets before the crickets reached breeding age since they were cannibalizing each other. It took 3 generations before we had to upgrade our cricket bin to a large kitty litter tub (1000+ crickets). If you want a faster start to your cricket colony, or extras to feed your chickens without waiting, you should get at least 50 crickets. However, if you’re impatient and don’t want to wait months until your chickens have enough crickets to eat on a daily basis, just pony up some cash and get one of the 500+ count cricket deals on Amazon. 1/2″ crickets (about 3 weeks old) are the best as you can be sure the females haven’t already laid eggs yet, but they’re just 1-2 weeks away from full maturity and breeding age. Rainbowmealworms also sells 50 ct crickets for about $2.50. Cost: $2 for the patient penny pinchers

How can I tell if I have any females crickets?

All baby crickets look alike because they’re too small for you to see very many details, but once they grow to about the size of a grain of rice you’ll be able to tell the difference between male and female crickets. Female crickets have a long needle like protrusion from their behinds. Don’t worry, they can’t sting you! This protrusion is the ovipositor and female crickets use it to insert their eggs deep inside soil. Male crickets do not have an ovipositor.

How do I breed crickets?

You can tell that crickets are ready to breed when you hear the male crickets begin to chirp. Leave the males and females alone for 2-4 weeks with a covered egg container and you’ll find it full of eggs. I would recommend that you keep a male:female ratio of 1:4 or even less. Too many males will result in cannibalism and fighting and they really aren’t necessary for breeding. Keep the soil in the egg container moist, but not soggy or you’ll risk drowning the newly hatched crickets.

Egg tub filled with sand inside rearing container with high humidity.
Egg tub filled with sand inside rearing container with high humidity.

How do I make my crickets grow and breed faster?

Crickets grow fastest when the temperature is around 85-99 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not let the temperature go up higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit or they will start to overheat and die. If the temperature is too cool, then it can take them months to mature and reproduce. If you don’t want to waste electricity on keeping your crickets warm, good places to keep your container are either next to a lamp, next to your water heater, next to your computer, or on top of your refrigerator. If you keep your crickets warm, they will hatch in less than 2 weeks and grow to breeding age within 3 weeks.

Cricket rearing container on top of LED shop light.
I keep my small cricket tub on top of an LED shop light that keeps them at a perfect 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

Whew, my crickets stink! How can I keep the stench down?

The horrible smell people complain about comes from the build up of their frass, dead crickets, and spoiled food. The best way to prevent strong smells is to clean out dead crickets, spoiled food, and frass as soon as possible. You will want to keep the adult rearing container dry to prevent bacterial growth and to keep the stink down.

My cricket eggs and pinhead crickets keep dying! How do I keep my newly hatched baby crickets alive?

On the other hand, you should keep the container of eggs and baby crickets (called pinhead crickets) nice and humid. Spritz the egg container with a water bottle or lay a damp paper towel over the top. But make sure there are no water droplets or condensation anywhere in the rearing container as the tiny babies can get stuck and drown.

How do I feed and hydrate my crickets without drowning them?

Do not leave open containers of water or any water in your container and do not let water droplets develop on the walls of your container. Crickets can drown in as little as one droplet of water. You can keep them hydrated by placing a moist sponge or folded paper towel in the container. The crickets will quickly swarm on the moisture source and suck out the water. Other people use water gels or jello, but that’s a bit too spendy for me! 😉 The crickets will also get moisture from the vegetable scraps you feed them. Some people feed fruit scraps and potato peels to their crickets, but I hate using these as moisture sources as they can rot and grow mold overnight and attract gnats and fruit flies. Gross! Greens are a much better water and food source as they don’t rot and leave a dry fibrous husk when the crickets are done eating them.

Baby pinhead crickets having a drink on a moist paper towel.
Baby pinhead crickets having a drink on a moist paper towel.

How do I keep my cricket bin clean and my crickets healthy?

You will want to check your bin every day for moldy or rotting food and get rid of them as soon as possible. Crickets that eat spoiled food will pass the bacteria on to your chickens and possibly make them sick. A deep cleaning where you remove all the crickets and give the bin a good scrub down with bleach is only necessary once every 1-2 months. You can spot clean by brushing and wiping away their frass once every week.

Baby crickets in a clean container.
Baby crickets in a clean container.

How can I tell if I have any cricket eggs?

The eggs will look like tiny white, waxy grains of rice, but much smaller. You might have to dig about a 1/2 inch below the surface of the soil to find them as the females bury them deep in the dirt to keep the males from cannibalizing the eggs. Your crickets will begin to mate once you hear the males begin to chirp. Give them 2 weeks or so to lay their eggs, then change the egg container with a new one (or feed the adults to your chickens) as baby crickets will start to hatch. Always keep the young and the adults separate as the adults will eat the babies. If you let them, the adult crickets will continue to breed and lay more eggs for two more weeks, though at a much slower pace. You should feed the adults to your chickens after this second round of egg laying as they’ll die soon.

Plastic tub with egg-laying container and paper egg crates.
This is my cricket egg incubating and baby pinhead cricket rearing tub. Always keep newly hatched crickets separate from adult crickets.

Help, my crickets keep jumping out each time I open the top of the bin!

There’s no good way around this, I’m afraid. It’s one of the reasons why raising crickets is such a pain in the butt. The best way to cut down on escapees is to use a tall bin where the top of the bin is at least 12″ from the very tallest egg carton or surface from which the crickets can jump off of. Make sure the plastic walls of the rearing tub are as smooth as possible, otherwise the crickets will climb their way up like Spiderman. Try not to open the lid too much when you add food to the container. This is why I love the giant Tidy Cat litter tubs for raising crickets. The tub is too tall for the crickets to jump out except for the occasional super jumper, the sides are too smooth for them to climb out, and the folding lid makes it easy to add and remove stuff, but lets me slam the lid shut at the first sign of a jumper.

Adult crickets crawling on egg cartons in a yellow tidy cat litter tub.
Large 20 lb. kitty litter tubs are perfect for raising adult crickets. The tub is tall enough that the adults cannot jump out.

How to start a mealworm farm for chicken food for under $20

Materials and supplies

  • A plastic container with smooth (unscuffed) sides so the mealworms can’t climb out. A lid is optional. A screen or large piece of mesh cloth to allow airflow and keep out pests is better. The large, 1 lb. salad containers from Costco are the perfect size for up to 2000 mealworms. Try not to crowd your worms too much as this can result in excess death. Cost: $0
  • Grain for the bedding and food source. Some peolple use wheat bran, cornmeal, or rolled oats. I use regular rolled oats since that’s what I have on hand. You’ll want to fill your plastic container about 1″ deep, no more. Bedding that’s too deep can cause overheating as mealworms generate a lot of body heat. I ended up filling the container with about 4 oz. of oatmeal. Cost: $0.20
  • Some place warm to keep your worms. You’ll want to find somewhere that’s at least 80F, but under 100F. Do not leave your worms out in direct sunlight during the summer unless you want to kill them all!
  • Some paper towels, scrap cardboard, or newspaper for the larvae to crawl under. Cost: $0
  • A plastic water bottle or small container to hold the pupa so they don’t get munched on by the worms. Cost $0
  • Mealworms! I got mine from Rainbow Mealworms on Amazon. You can buy them directly from Rainbow Mealworms’s website, but I prefer Amazon for the buyer protection especially with something like mealworms that could arrive dead at the post office. You’ll want at least 1000 mealworms for a faster start to your colony. Cost: $15

Housing your colony

Prepare your mealworm container by sterilizing it and making sure that it’s 100% dry.

Next, you’ll need to prepare the bedding. Do not skip this step! You’ll want to kill all the grain mites that are in the grains. Grain mites are tiny dust like mites that are almost invisible to the naked eye until they gather in large clumps. They are found in almost all grains, even those meant for human consumption.

Take your oats, wheat bran, corn meal, whatever, and either nuke it in the microwave for about a minute (open the door and check the grains constantly to be sure you’re not burning it) or freeze the grains for at least 3 days.

Humid environments (like a mealworm colony with wet vegetables) is the perfect environment for a grain mite infestation. Grain mites are not an immediate killer of mealworm colonies, but they do compete for food and they can prey on mealworms that are shedding their skins.

Fill your plastic tub with about 1″ of the clean grain. You’ll only need this much at any time. A bedding layer that’s too deep can cause overheating and excess deaths in your colony.

On top of your grains you’ll want to add some pieces of cardboard or newspaper for the worms to hide under. Remember, they’re calle darkling beetles for a reason–they like to hide in dark places. Cardboard pieces are also a great way to take out any worms for feeding your chickens. The worms will cling onto the underside of the cardboard and you can just flick them off onto the ground for your chooks.

If you have problems keeping your colony humid, then you might want to place a lid on top of your container. Otherwise, some light cloth or wire mesh is the best choice as it allows airflow, preventing problems with mold and mites.

I used to use a lid to protect my mealworms from the super dry air where I live, but after a while I started having problems with mold and grain mites. I switched to covering the containers with light mesh cloth and instead top up the container with wet paper towels once in the evening and once at night. So far there have been no more problems with mold or mites.

Feeding your colony

Since the grain based bedding also acts as a food source, you really don’t have to feed your worms anything else. Some people give a protein source such as dog food or chicken feed, but I find that these extra food sources grow moldy very easily so I skip this step entirely. You can also load your mealworms with nutritional yeast a day or two before you feed them to your chickens. The yeast will make your worms grow fat and juicy and it’s an easy way to load your worms with extra nutrition for your chickens. I prefer just adding the nutritional yeast to my chickens’ wet food.

The most important thing you need to provide your mealworms is moisture. Mealworms don’t drink water, but instead get their moisture from eating things like vegetable and fruit scraps and moist pieces of paper. All you have to do to maintain a healthy colony is to make sure they always have a source of moisture available. If you live somewhere humid, you may only have to add scraps once a week. I live in the desert so I have to add scraps or moist paper to the colony once in the morning and once at night.

Carrots and moist paper towels provide moisture for mealworms.
You can tell how dry my environment is by how many moisture sources I need to add to my mealworm bin.

 How long does it take to get a productive colony growing?

How fast your colony of mealworms grows depends on the number of mealworms you start with, the temperature of the rearing container, and the humidity of the container. This can vary from as fast as 8-10 weeks during the summer for the entire cycle from egg to larva to pupa to beetle, or as long as 5+ months in cold weather.

Here’s how long it took for us to get our colony started from the time we received our shipment of mealworms.

  • 6/7/2016: order placed for 1000 small (1/2″) mealworms.
  • 6/11/2016: picked up mealworms from the post office. The mealworms were packed in crumpled newspaper inside a mesh bag. We could hear them slithering and rustling about inside the box while we were in the car–kinda gross and creepy! When we got home I had to unpack the worms and shake them out of the newspaper. Make sure you do this step outside on the patio or driveway and bring a large pan with you to contain the mealworms, they crawl really fast and they will escape everywhere. The sizes were a mix ranging from over 1/2″ to as small as 1/4″. There were very little deaths, under 10 dead worms, even though temperatures were in the high 90s.
  • 7/4/2016: found our first pupae, 2 of them to be exact. 24 days after receiving our shipment. At this point I wasn’t keeping the worms on top of my LED shop light, so the temperature of the container was the same as room temperature (79F-82F). This is a bit on the low side and it explains why it took so long for the mealworms to pupate.
  • 7/10/2016: found our first beetle. It took one day for the beetle to turn caramel brown and two more days before it was completely black.
  • 7/20/2016: we’ve got our first eggs and the beginning of our second generation of mealworms! I noticed that the eggs were drying out so at this point I started placing damp paper towels inside the breeding container.
  • 7/27/2016 (2nd generation): first baby mealworms hatched! At this point we’ve relocated the rearing bin to the top of our LED light. The temperature of the container is now 90F-96F.
  • 9/20/2016 (2nd generation): first pupa sighted.
  • 9/24/2016 (2nd generation): first beetles emerged.
  • 10/2/2016 (3rd generation): first eggs laid.

As you can see, the 2nd generation which we raised ourselves was completed in just 75 days. It took the larvae 56 days to grow from new hatchlings to pupae.

The mealworm life cycle: from egg to larva to pupa to beetle and back to egg. How to care for your colony.

I’m not going to go through and explain each stage of the mealworm’s life cycle as you can google that yourself, but just know that mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle and that it’s the beetle that lays the eggs which hatch into worms.

The in between state from worm to beetle is called a pupa. These little guys are basically mummified and stuck until they mature and emerge as a beetle. I think these pod-guys look like Kakuna (the pokemon) and always call them kakunas instead of pupae!

There are many schools of thought on whether each stage of the mealworm’s life cycle should be separated out. Some people keep all stages separate from each other, while others only separate out the pupae and beetles.

Some people set up complicated sorting systems and multi-tiered bins, but I like to keep it simple and keep everything in one bin. That doesn’t mean that I don’t separate the different forms.

The most important thing to do is to keep the pupae separated from the worms and beetles as they’ll eat the poor pupa if you don’t have enough moisture available in the bin. Whenever I notice pupae starting to appear on top of the oats I scoop them up with a spoon and deposit them into an empty water bottle that I keep inside the worm bin. I do this once in the morning and once in the evening when I add veggie scraps to my bin. The one time I forgot to check for pupae in the morning because I was too busy resulted in finding two empty pupa shells in the evening with a giant hole gnawed out of their torsos. 🙁

Mealworm pupae in a water bottle separated from larvae.
Mealworm pupae in a water bottle separated from larvae.

Besides separating out the pupa, you may want to separate out the beetles into another container. This step isn’t necessary, but I like to do this so that I can see how many eggs the beetles are laying and so that the eggs and tiny newly hatched larvae aren’t mixed up with all the frass and dust in the main mealworm bin. Mixing eggs and tiny larvae in the main bin means that you won’t be able to sift out the frass from your main worm bin.

And yes, you should sift out the frass (bug poop) and dust that accumulates under your layer of grains. The build up not only smells, but the frass actually contains a chemical that can keep your mealworms from pupating (turning into pupa). Your worms would just get bigger and bigger, but never maturing into the next stage in their life cycle. This chemical is actually what’s used to create giant mealworms (sometimes mistakenly called superworms).

I clean out the frass by sifting everything through a kitchen strainer once the frass gets about 1″ deep. If you have very tiny worms in your colony, make sure to poke through the sifted frass to see if any mealworms slipped through!

Darkling beetles and eggs in smaller container inside mealworm bin
Darkling beetles and eggs in smaller container inside mealworm bin.

Mealworm eggs are tiny! Here’s a photo of a beetle actively laying an egg on a piece of cardboard. You can see the beetle’s ovipositor sticking out as it tries to deposit the egg. Each female beetle can lay hundreds and up to thousands of eggs over a couple months. The best way to increase their laying rate is to keep temperatures high and humidity levels up. If you keep the beetles in a separate container, you’ll see the beetles lay less and less eggs as they get older. At that point you can feed the beetles to your chickens!

Eggs take about 2 weeks to hatch and the newly hatched worms are tiny, white, and very hard to see with the naked eye. You’ll want to avoid moving or poking the eggs because they’ll just explode into a gooey mess. If any eggs are stuck to the container, just leave them there until it hatches!

Darkling beetle laying egg.
Each white rice grain looking thing on the cardboard is an egg that will hatch into a mealworm larva.

 

How can I get my mealworms to grow and pupate faster?

The key factors to fast growing worms is temperature and humidity. The ideal temperature is around 82F-95F and the humidity in your bin should be at least 50% relative humidity. While it is possible to keep your worms in a colder room with temperatures in the seventies, this will slow down their growth and extend the larvae stage from weeks to possibly months.

I keep my worm bin warm by placing it on top of the LED shop light I use for my indoor garden. Another good place to keep your worms warm is next to your water heater, on top of your refrigerator, or on top of your desktop computer. You can also use a warming pad, but I’m a cheapskate who thinks that’s a waste of electricity.

As for maintaining the perfect level of humidity, you’ll want to have enough sources of moisture for your worms so that the smaller baby worms don’t dry out. Mealworms also need enough moisture so that they can store enough water to successfully pupate, but you don’t want the bin to be so wet that the bedding starts to mold.

If your bin is too dry or too wet, you’ll start to see dead worms in your bin. Dead worms are easy to tell apart since they’ll turn into a black shriveled husk.

Keep in mind that I live in the desert where the relative humidity hovers around 5% – 15%. If I still lived in the mid-west where the relative humidity is usually around 60%-90%, the methods and materials that I use for giving the worms moisture would be different. You’ll need to experiment to find the perfect solution for your local environment.

The worst moisture sources

  • Apples or fruit of any kind – the fruit pulp dries up and turns gummy, killing any worms that get stuck inside.
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes – again, the potato turns gummy as it dries and traps worms inside
  • Tomatoes and cucumbers – too wet, causes problems with mold
  • Kale – Dries too quickly.

The best materials for adding moisture to your mealworm bin

All of these sources dry nicely without molding or any messy residue and the mealworms easily burrow through the vegetables without getting trapped.

  • Brocolli stems
  • Cabbage leaves and stems
  • Celery leaves and ends
  • Carrot ends
  • Asparagus stalks – by this I mean the tough woody ends that we break off and throw away. I had to slice these in half because the outer layer was too tough for the mealworms to munch through.
  • Folded toilet paper or napkins misted with water daily – I use this when I don’t have enough vegetable scraps on hand to feed to the worms. I have to fold the paper into thick wads or else they dry too quickly. If you live somewhere that’s more humid (not a desert!) then you may have better luck covering your bin with a thin layer of unfolded moistened paper.

Feeding Chickens Frugally Without Buying Feed

Before we got our chickens we did a lot of research and on internet forums everywhere it seemed like people freaked out whenever someone mentioned raising chickens with their own blend of feed or not buying layer pellets. Responses ranged from

OMGZ UR CHICKS WILL DIE!

to

It’s too difficult to make your own mixed feed. Pellets are properly blended to contain the right mix of nutrients…blah…blah…blah…scientifically proven to maximize growth…blah…blah…

But honestly, humans have raised chickens for hundreds and thousands of years without doing anything more than letting them roam freely around their homes and feeding them kitchen scraps. As for bagged pellets being the perfect mix of nutrition for gains of body mass and egg production, I’m just going to point out that fast food and frozen dinners are the perfect mix for body mass gain for humans, but nobody’s going to claim that living on processed crap is good for your health.

The advice in this post assumes that you’re raising a heritage breed or at the very least not some franken-chicken like CornishXs or Freedom Rangers or Hy-line layers. In these cases I would recommend using commercial feed.

Out of eight chicks that arrived in December, we only lost one to coccidiosis. The others all grew up healthy and the pullets started laying right on schedule in May. We butchered the cockerels once they started crowing. Pretty good odds for a first time chicken owner!

Silkie chickens raised on healthy veggies and worms.
Please excuse our dirty faces, we’ve just finished eating lunch.

Our girls lay gorgeous eggs with thick shells and rich orange yolks either every day or every other day. Our cockerels were tender, juicy, and delicious with none of the large yellow fat deposits we saw in other people’s pictures. At the end of five months, our chickens (Silkie bantams) all weighed 29 oz. – 33 oz., which is within breed standards and similar to what a chicken raised on commercial feed would weigh. In addition to our 3 Silkies we are also raising 7 white Leghorn chicks.

So for all the naysayers, I have to say that it is possible to raise healthy chickens without commercial chicken feed and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. We’ve certainly done it, and we’re still living in an apartment too!

How do we feed our chickens?

Chickens need protein, calcium, and a healthy mix of vitamins and minerals with the rest of their caloric intake met by carbohydrates.

Since chickens are kinda like teenagers, they’ll happily fill up on junk food like grains and corn over healthy food. Since we’re not using a pellet where everything is homogenized, we front load their breakfast with the most nutritionally dense food. This means that their breakfast is high in protein and nutritionally dense veggies. Our hens’ breakfast mix varies depending on what we have on hand, but it is usually a mix of:

  • Mealworms (which we raise)
  • Crickets (which we raise)
  • Black soldier fly larvae
  • Cabbage
  • Kale (which we grow)
  • Mustard greens (which we grow)
  • Sweet potato leaves (which we grow)
  • Leftover meat from soup bones and such
  • Plain yogurt
Carrots, sunflower sprouts, wheatgrass fodder for chickens
The customers have already left the table for their afternoon siesta.

We don’t regulate how much they eat and adjust the amount we give them by observation. We like to give them enough so that there’s a bit leftover after everybody’s lost interest. This ensures that the lowest girl in the pecking order doesn’t go hungry.

After breakfast, they have free choice of veggies and grains for the rest of the day until they go to sleep. We scatter grains around their run (aka our patio) and keep several dishes in their indoor play area and scatter the veggies around for them to peck at.

For veggies we give them:

  • Wheatgrass fodder everyday (which we grow)
  • Sunflower sprouts everyday (which we grow)
  • Carrots everyday
  • Cabbage everyday
  • Kale
  • Pumpkin (when in season)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes (when in season)

For grains:

  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sesame seeds

To meet their need for calcium and other trace minerals we give them a mix of:

  • Crushed egg shells
  • Crushed seafood shells from whatever we’ve been eating (mussels, lobster, shrimp)
  • 1 calcium tablet (dissolved) and 1 multivitamin (dissolved) mixed into their grains
  • Nutritional yeast

And that’s really all we give them! The foods vary depending on seasonality and what we can buy on sale and grow, but it gives you a pretty good idea of what they eat everyday.

But this must cost a fortune! Not at all. Since we grow so much of what they eat and buy the rest when it’s on sale, we buy less than $6 of veggies for them each month.

How we save money on feeding our chickens

Crickets

Crickets on a piece of asparagus.
Mmmm….yummy asparagus!

The first feeder insects we experimented with were crickets. We bought a tiny box from PetSmart (25 crickets for $1.99) in December and after getting rid of all the males except for a few, we let them breed and lay eggs. Six months later we are on our third generation of crickets and have several hundred.

We keep them in a plastic salad tub with air holes poked into the lid. They have egg carton pieces to hide in and we use the original container from PetSmart as a container for the egg-laying medium when each generation matures to breeding age.

To keep costs down, we feed them whatever’s left over after the chickens are finished eating. We also feed them vegetable scraps that even our chickens won’t touch. This includes the tough ends of vegetables like asparagus, carrot, lettuce, and cabbage. These are the perfect vegetables since they don’t grow mold or attract fruit flies. The insects feed on the vegetables for moisture and after they are consumed we’re left with a dried husk which I can just toss. I do cut the asparagus ends in half lengthwise like a hotdog bun since they’re too tough on the outside for the bugs to chew through.

For protein, I feed them meat trimmings which I place on a yogurt lid. If there’s any left over meat after 24 hours–there usually isn’t–I can throw it away neatly without rotting meat juice getting everywhere.

To keep the crickets warm and growing rapidly, I keep the salad container on top of my indoor garden’s LED shop light.

Cost for initial population: $2.13 (incl. tax)

Cost to feed and house crickets: $0. Everything’s reused or recycled waste.

Mealworms

After our crickets, we wanted another source of protein for our chickens. A lot of people buy dried mealworms since they’re so cheap and easily available. We did too, until we learned that almost all of the dried mealworms sold in the US are raised in China. Different companies repackage and rebrand them in the US, but it’s all Chinese! The domestic mealworm producers cater to the live mealworm market. Mealworms are their favorite insects by far so we knew we had to raise a large colony fast. We started with 2000 worms from Rainbow Mealworms.

Similar to our crickets, our mealworms are kept in old veggie containers. We use oatmeal for their bedding and feed them the same vegetable scraps as the crickets.

Cost for initial population: $16 (incl. taxes and shipping)

Cost to feed and house mealworms: $0.10 (the oatmeal’s the only thing that’s not recycled)

Sunflower Sprouts and Wheatgrass fodder

We realized very quickly that buying all the vegetables our chooks eat was going to get expensive even if we only bought them on sale.

As it turned out, our chickens are picky eaters. They simply refuse to eat BOSS (black oil sunflower seeds) in their scratch mix. We don’t know if it’s really because they’re picky or if it’s because their little bantam mouths can’t handle it, but in any case we decided to try sprouting them instead of letting all those seeds go to waste.

They love the sprouts. 

We soak the BOSS for an hour and then let them sprout inside old tomato containers. We rinse them out once in the morning and once at night before we go to bed.

During the first 3 days the sprouts do not need any sunlight, so we keep them stacked together in a shelf below our indoor garden. On day 3 and afterwards, we put them either under our grow lights, on our windowsill, or on top of our patio wall. The sprouts are ready to serve on day 5.

We get multiple pounds of sprouts for each pound of seed so a little goes a long way. Sprouts are nutritious and filling and we actually have to be careful with how much we give the chickens as they’ll fill up on the sprouts and leave all the other vegetables untouched.

Cost for sunflower seeds: $0.50 per pound (it comes as part of their millet/sunflower seed birdfood). One pound of dried seeds turns into 6 pounds of sprouts so it ends up costing $0.083 per pound of sprouts.

Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)

We decided to grow wheatgrass for our chickens after I stumbled across this thread on BYC. If the claims on the thread are correct that each pound of seed yields six pounds of fodder, then we’re well on our way to cutting down our feed costs.

We weren’t sure if the girls would like the wheatgrass or if they would turn up their little beaks so we got a small (26 lb.) tub from Walmart to try it out. The bucket cost $16, which is okay for wheat berries, but not the cheapest. In the future, if they like the wheatgrass, we plan on getting the wheat berries from a feedstore which should be even cheaper.

They love picking at their little mat of grass.

We give them about 8 oz. of wheatgrass a day and they eat it all up by late afternoon.

Cost for wheat berries: $0.60 per pound. One pound of dried seeds turns into 6 pounds of sprouts so it ends up costing $0.10 per pound of sprouts.

Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)

Sweet Potato Leaves

Besides all the sprouts, this is the next easiest and fastest growing vegetable. We save all the ends we cut from our sweet potatoes and just bury them in the dirt. We keep them on our patio wall where we get full light in the morning and indirect light in the afternoon. It’s that easy. Leaves start poking out within a week and within two weeks you can start harvesting them.

Sweet potato leaves are perfectly safe to eat unlike potato leaves, and are tender and delicious stir-fried with a bit of oil and garlic.

Cost for sweet potato ends: $0 (the ends of sweet potatoes are fibrous, usually dried out, and not very edible…)

Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)

So these are the major ways we’ve slashed our feed budget. What about the foods that we buy from the store?

  • Oatmeal: $8.99 for 10 lbs from Costco. Oatmeal’s not their favorite food, I think they’ve only gone through 8 ounces in 6 months…my mother ends up eating most of it!
  • Cabbage: $1 for 3 lbs when it’s on sale at Marketon. Three pounds of cabbage will last almost a month and a half.
  • Birdfood: $17 for 40 lbs from Costco. We LOVE this birdfood. It’s just a mix of millet and sunflower seeds, no fillers like corn or sorghum! Millet’s their favorite grain so we make sure we have plenty on hand for them. One bag of birdfood lasts 4 months.
  • Carrots: $4.79 for 10 lbs from Costco. Carrots are their favorite vegetables after sunflower sprouts. They eat half of the bag and we eat the other half. We buy a bag every month.
  • Black soldier fly larvae: $55 for 10 lbs from Tasty Grubs. This is the most expensive food we buy for our chickens. If I had my own yard I would farm these myself. Since I don’t think my upstairs neighbor would appreciate flies everywhere or the yummy smell of decomposition, we buy these online. These grubs are not their favorite bugs, but they’re high in calcium so we add them to their breakfast everyday. They go through eight ounces every month.
  • Yogurt: $1 for 32 oz when on markdown at Savemart. We stock up and freeze the leftovers whenever we find yogurt on sale.
  • Nutritional Yeast: $8.90 for 10 oz. I sprinkle some yeast on top of their food every other day and we go through a 10 oz. tub in 4 months.
  • Calcium and vitamins: $7 for 500 tablets each. We buy these on sale at Costco whenever they have their buy 2 for $7 each deal. Each day we dissolve one of each and coat their grains in the liquid. If I had my own house (and a garage!) I could use something cheaper like limestone for a source of calcium, but at the moment this is the most convenient option.

We still have more than half of our wheat berries, oatmeal, birdseed, and grubs, so for 3 laying hens (Silkie bantams) and 2-month old leghorn chicks and 5 2-week old leghorn chicks, it costs about $20 per month to keep them fed, healthy, and laying regularly. That’s $0.67 per day and less than $0.07 per bird per day. Even though our chickens are bantams, that’s still really really really cheap! I’m sure the savings would be similarly massive for a standard breed.

 

Salad That Isn’t Boring – 5 Minute Garden Salad Recipe

Salad that is not bland or boring.

I have a problem with most salads.  It’s either tasteless, slimy, and bitter or drenched with so much fattening dressing that you might as well eat those two slices of pizza you really wanted anyways.  Here’s my simple solution to the problem.  Ditch the lettuce!  Yes!  Lettuce is satan’s vegetable.  I only include crunchy, juicy, flavorful veggies in my salads.  Mix it all up with some lemon juice, lots of black pepper, some cumin or oregano, and some olive oil and you’ve got yourself a party in your salad bowl.

My veggie and fruit shortlist includes:

  • Tomatoes – get the really salty juicy campari tomatoes, not those gross watery giant beefsteak tomatoes.
  • Bell Peppers – get the yellow and red ones.  Raw green bell peppers are an abomination.
  • Cucumbers
  • Mushrooms – a couple slices of mushrooms gives some umami/savoryness to the salad.
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Peas
  • Onions
  • Eggplant (Grilled)
  • Zucchini (Grilled)
  • Broccoli (Cooked)
  • Califlower (Cooked)
  • Green Beans (Cooked)
  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Mangoes
  • Peaches
  • Berries of all sorts
  • Lemons and limes

Salad that is not bland or boring.

8 easy low-cost ways to stay warm this winter (and cut your heating bills by 15%)

Here are 8 easy low-cost & eco-friendly ways you can cut down on your heating costs while staying warm at the same time.

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Did you know that you can save 15% on your heating bill by turning your thermostat down to below 68 degrees Fahrenheit?

1. Block drafts from coming in through doors

*Doors are the biggest source of cold drafts. It’s easy 5 minute fix to insulate your doors with foam weatherseal tape and door draft stoppers.

2. Block drafts from coming in through windows

  • Your windows are the second largest source of cold drafts and heat loss. There are two very simple ways to fix your windows so you’re not leaking heat (and money) during the winter.
    • First of all, you should apply a layer of insulating plastic window film over the entire window. This temporary film is easy to apply with just the heat of a hair dryer and you can take it off when spring comes.
    • Second, thermal insulated curtains will block any cold air that does get in from spreading into your home.

3. Warm up your bed before you go to sleep with a hot water bottle

  • Most of the time it’s only our hands and feet that get cold at night. A warm water bottle at the foot of your bed will topped off with a down comforter will keep you toasty warm until morning. I like the German made FASHY water bottles. They cost a bit more but I’ve used the same water bottle for 4 years without any leaks. The cheaper water bottles made in China are tempting (they’re only $6!) but they will leak water after a couple months. Plus they give off a horrible rubber smell.

4. Upgrade to a down comforter that will insulate by trapping warm air.

  • Down comforters are popular in Europe for a reason. Down is absolutely the best material to keep you toasty warm without making you feel like you’re being suffocated under layers of heavy blankets. You can get really good quality comforters from Amazon. It seems like an indulgence, but a good comforter will last for 10+ years as long as you take care of it and use a duvet cover.

5. Wear layers instead of one thick sweater.

  • Layering your clothes helps retain body heat better. Add some thick wool socks and a scarf for even more warmth.

*Pro tip: Ladies, mens wool socks are often thicker than ladies’ wool socks! We get the prettier designs, but the materials are so much thinner and our socks cost more too. 🙁 My shoe size is a women’s 7.5US and men’s size 6-9US (or medium) socks fit my feet just fine.

6. Upgrade your slippers!

  • Okay, so insulated slippers are usually worn by campers, BUT who says you can’t wear them at home! Insulated slippers and booties lined with down or lined with fleece are surprisingly cheap and comfy. Say goodbye to ice-block feet!

7. Keep something warm by your side.

  • Sip on some warm tea or coffee throughout the day. Not only will you stay hydrated, but you’ll also keep your hands warm as well as warm yourself from the inside out. Keep your mug warm and safe-to touch with a insulated drink sleeve like these from Amazon.

8. Let out your inner romantic. Light candles at night.

  • Switch to lighting candles at night when you have dinner or read before bed. Not only will the warm fire light improve your sleep, but it will also help keep your home warm. A votive candle will burn for more than 12 hours. Buy a big box and you’ll be set for the winter.