Welcoming the Long Winter

book_pages_reading_fireplace_flame-892494.jpg!dDecember was busy. Somehow we fit all the activities and travel preparations for the holidays into our usual routines, and that time had to come from somewhere. I know that one place I skimped was meals. No one complained, and maybe they didn’t even notice, but I did… I noticed in my added few pounds, in my craving for green vegetables, and in having to dispose of a few things from the refrigerator, which is never necessary when I’m on top of things.

But all of that busy-ness is long over now.. and I’ve even undecorated. The winter months are upon us, and it is likely that this weekend’s thaw will be the last until April. It’s time for those braising, roasting, and simmering recipes that heat and scent the house. Since we returned from our holiday travel, I’ve cooked more than I did for most of December, when I nearly emptied our freezer and pantry. The freezer is again full and our weeknights should be easy for a few weeks.

I spent about 4 hours cooking this weekend and turned out a large loaf of bread, a quart of homemade yogurt, pasta with broccoli pesto and chickpeas for lunches, raw vegetables for this week’s lunches, and a cabbage-potato dish. Our Sunday dinner was the rajma recipe from Merra Sodha’s Fresh India, and it was delicious. There’s another meal of that in the freezer, along with chili, lasagna, black bean soup, scalloped potatoes, and various cooked beans and grains awaiting some type of quick preparation. I am feeling caught up.

The biggest bonus of cooking ahead is the time to focus on other projects. And sometimes, especially this dark and cold time of year, a project is as simple as a good book.

Thrifty Thursday

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Evelyn Simak / A traditional cottage garden (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most days are thrifty at Cottage Berg, so I admit succumbing to alliteration, but I do find regular reminders to be helpful when working toward a goal. Today’s thrifty habit is Meals that Clean Out the Fridge (or Freezer). Having learned to make use of random bits and scraps of leftovers has been a key skill in reducing food waste in our house. They are all either refrigerated or frozen in containers, and about once weekly I make a meal that can use up random vegetables, legumes, potatoes, or meat.

This is probably where casseroles originated. My mom never really made them, so the first time I saw a recipe I was stunned at all the work involved. But when everything is already made and leftover from another meal, they are very cost- and time-efficient. And that is true of most of these meals. Most are adaptable to use either cooked (neutrally seasoned) or raw vegetables; cooked vegetables should be added just in time to heat through.

Sometimes little containers get shoved to the back of the freezer or fridge.  I really hate to throw out food or clean moldy containers, so nearly emptying the fridge between shopping excursions is a good habit, and if I don’t have an idea for how to use something within a few days, I move it into the freezer.  The things that get lost in the deep freeze may become dessicated over time, but are still perfectly useful in a soup or chili.

Examples of perfect vehicles for random leftovers:

Frittata or omelet
Fried rice or bibbim bap
Soups (minestrone, for instance)
Enchiladas
Chili
Stir fry
Flatbread with toppings, or filled crepes

And then there’s always the Leftover Buffet.

Tonight I drive the carpool, and I need a quick meal to cook when I get home that will use up about two cups of cooked cabbage.  Soup is a good candidate, but I won’t have time to cook it after I get home, and am gone far too long to consider the slow cooker (after about 6 hours, in my opinion, it just tastes overcooked).   Plus, it’s Thursday night, the Night of Greatest Fatigue (I completely understand why Thursday night was meltdown night in Mari’s first years of school).  So, it will be simple: an unfilled omelet with green onions and Jarlsburg cheese, with leftover roasted potatoes and cabbage.  And then I will don my pajamas and read with a purring cat.

How have you reduced food waste? What are your weeknight go-to meals?

Frugal Thinking

forest-path-238887_1920iThe sun is poking through the clouds, shining with unusual intensity for a cloudy day directly into our dining room. The house is quiet – only the animals and I are awake. I am sitting at the keyboard, thinking. This is what I wanted more of when I quit that crazy job. Time to just think. It’s been a year now, and that anniversary as well as the lack of padding in our bank account has made me ponder my choice, which still feels right. I’ve never had a job that felt like such a good match to my skills, and because there is room to grow in the organization, I believe that our income situation will improve in time. In the meantime, Mari’s only home for two more years. I want to make those happy years, not two more years with a stressed-to-the-limit mom.

I met my friend Mary to walk and talk yesterday, and our conversation turned to how I have more time now. I definitely do, though its source is not really obvious. One hour of daily work time saving has been given to sleep that I didn’t know I was missing until I felt the resulting change. I am not spending hours each week on a job hunt, as I was for much of 2018. Overall, it’s hard to say whether reduced stress or the changed work environment is the most significant factor.

My previous job required “deep work” for the entire day.  Every task, every day, required problem solving in a different situation, resolution in a timely manner, with close to zero tolerance for error. But all day long I was interrupted by someone in person or by phone, text, or page at least every 15 minutes. Sometimes it was something that could have been asked in an email. Sometimes it was production staff asking me when I would be done using some equipment (I managed to never say, “Sooner if you stop interrupting me.”). Sometimes it was actually something urgent. Every day when I came home, my brain was exhausted – and then I would still continue to receive texts and emails and ponder unsolved issues, often in the middle of the night. My coworkers were similarly stressed, which multiplied the effect.

Now, I am still interrupted for most of the day, but I have at least an hour every morning with close to zero interruptions. The deep work I do comes in concentrated bursts, and there is no manufacturing urgency. When I leave for the day, I am done. I don’t have to make tentative weekend plans around the possibility of being called in to fix something. I have mental energy left in the evenings to learn new things, to begin creative projects, and, most importantly, to be available to my family in more than robot mode.

It is still difficult to catch up with friends due to everyone’s different schedules and time demands, but when I do, I can to settle in and enjoy the time, rather than being stressed about what I’m not getting done. Yesterday, Mary and I walked for an hour on a day with weather that can only be described as perfect (yes, in January!). Both the outdoor time in the sunshine and the discussion were therapeutic.

So, life is very good, but there is some threat of financial strain. To minimize that I will be renewing my focus on frugality, continuing to seek ways of saving on a regular basis. My budgeting approach is somewhat casual except for one rule, which covers just about everything: don’t spend if it’s not necessary or if it’s not in line with family priorities. (I have a formal budget in a spreadsheet, but I don’t look at it very often… it helps that I have a strong memory for numbers.) Our default when something is necessary is to first consider if something else can be substituted or repurposed, which results in many fun creative experiments and a lot of learning. I was considering some sort of formal budget challenge, but after reviewing expenses from the past year, think that I would rather just focus on that one rule, and allow that energy to go to new learning instead.

Is frugality part of your simple living path?
What tools do you use to maintain a frugal lifestyle when there are so many anti-frugal influences every day?

Turning the Calendar: Housekeeping

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We’ve been seeking speed, convenience, and savings for at least 130 years, according to this 1889 advertisement from Ladies’ Home Journal.  Granted, laundry at that time was an overwhelming task.  How is it that with all modern conveniences, we’re still time-starved? 

…because ‘housekeeping’ sounds ever much more pleasant than ‘chores!’

I cleaned every area of the house last summer, and saw how much neglect had occurred in the previous 3 years when I was overwhelmed by my job. We did the necessary cleaning (approximately) every week, and urgencies as they occurred, but things like the laundry room, a dusty place due to cat litter boxes, and various closets were neglected. I was shocked to see that I could easily clean measurable dust from the ceiling fans every month. The long-lasting furnace filter was somewhat beyond its life. Clearly, a system was needed.

Over the years we’ve had various methods of keeping track of household chores. Long ago, a spreadsheet listed weekly chores for Thom and myself. After recovering from the haze of having a youngster, I created a weekly rotating index card system that listed chores in time segments that were easily tackled with a toddler.  When Mari was older,  I hosted an informal weekly gathering, when friends could stop by for soup, crafting, and conversation, and had an unusually tidy home by our standards for a year or two. Now, visitors or guests still result in the cleanest house… although a close second is my birthday, when my gift is for Thom and Mari to clean while I relax. Mari has had regular chores since the age of 3, a list that increases when school’s out. But in general,  we’ve been winging the majority of the house upkeep and cleaning, getting things done when we get to it, aside from the obvious chores such as vacuuming, bathrooms, kitchen cleaning, laundry.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I prefer a paper planner for week-to-week notes, but recurring events, such as birthdays, flu shots, and real estate tax payments, I add to my online calendar once with an email reminder. So this is what I’m trying with these household tasks. I made a list of how often various things needed to be done (skipping the weekly chores as we have those under control), and added them to my calendar with the appropriate recurrence, trying to put them on different weekends of each month. These are tasks such as cleaning the outside dryer vent, changing the aquarium water, and decluttering particular rooms, cabinets, and closets. Yes, and cleaning the ceiling fans and light fixtures.

I know I’m not solving a grand problem here; neither is it my intention to maintain an immaculate house.  I’m looking for the good enough solution: a clean, functional, and presentable home with a reduced decision load for my brain by having the computer tell me when things need to be done. The advantage of the email reminder is that it stays visible until I delete it, as opposed to the fleeting notification.  I’ve tried a few list-keeping apps, but generally do not want another app to keep track of.  Do you have a system for regular, but not frequent, household chores?

How I Did – and Didn’t – Live My Values This Christmas

How I did and didn't live my values this Christmas - a post at SnowshineCottage.com

So, Xmas.  Another December 25th has come and gone.  I thought it would be worthwhile to review how I did and did not embody some of my personal values this season.  I’d love to hear the same from you in the comments!

Less waste & reducing consumerism

Wins:

  • Bought some secondhand plastic toys rather than buying new.
  • Several gifts given and received were things we needed anyway, just maybe with the fun factor ratcheted up a bit – superhero undies, for example.
  • Conscious effort to restrain what we bought our kids knowing our lovely family would shower them with goodies.
  • Laying the groundwork long ago that secondhand gifts would be welcome and enjoyed – extended family gifted some secondhand items as well.
  • Several consumables given and received – candy, candles, bath bombs.
  • About 1/2 the gifts wrapped in reusable wrapping – gift bags, drawstring bags, tins, etc.

Not-so-greats:

Family togetherness & connection aka FUN

Wins:

  • Attended and enjoyed Xmas Eve at my BILs.  Brought the Santa suit along for my 4 yo to wear and his 9 mo cousin sat on his lap.  Hilarity.
  • Had my side over to our house for Xmas Day.  Made a fire and made s’mores in the fireplace.  Had a bunch of favorite desserts and foods.  People felt they could arrive well ahead of lunch – surprising me a bit, but happy they feel at home in our home.

Not-so-greats:

  • None here yet!

Egalitarian workload – emotional labor and otherwise

I’m trying not to own every detail of our married life.  It’s hard, because it’s easier for my husband to let me do that, and often easier for me just to do it.  Add the invisible societal expectations around it and it just seems like a no brainer to be “in charge” of Xmas.  But I don’t want it to be all me.  So I’m working on that.  (P.S. I always feel I have to give the caveat that my husband is very active in home life.  But the fact that I feel this way says that it’s still a force at work if I even have to point that out:  “Hey!  But my husband is an amazing anomaly!”)

Wins:

  • Refused to be the gatekeeper of the number or types of gifts for the children.
  • Created a shared gift idea list in the app we use for sharing our grocery shopping list.
  • Sent suggestions for what I wanted in my stocking.  I guess that was kind of providing emotional labor though.  But I was happy with what I got.  LOL
  • Co-planned Xmas hosting, using co-developed lists to communicate tasks and check them off.
  • Not extending more emotional labor than necessary when my brother waited until the last minute to obtain a contribution for Xmas Day and didn’t feel he could find what I suggested and wanted further discussion and suggestions.  So I told him whatever he wanted or nothing at all.

Not-so-greats:

  • Constantly having to pay attention to this.
  • Having to set up the things like shared lists like the gift ideas in the first place – and then to find out the other day he didn’t even know I’d shared it.
  • Coordinating/reminding/hounding my immediate family to declare what they would contribute on Christmas Day.
  • Husband declared that he would not ever be texting anyone on our babysitter list (developed by me, of course) because he doesn’t want to be creepy.
  • Total abandonment of sending Xmas cards or even electronic greetings.  Just too hard this year.

Honoring the spirit of the season

I feel I have few wins in this area outside of the family time stuff.  To me, this value is about giving to the broader community (didn’t, despite my best intentions) and engaging in worship or acknowledgement of the birth of Christ (ahem, a big fat zero in this area).  The best I did was to get a few of my families from school included into the schools Giving Tree, ones who hadn’t been included in the program previously.  So, big room to grow in this area.

How about you, dearies?  If you are a celebrant, are you happy with how you honored your selves and your beloveds this holiday?

Weeknight Meals, December

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A weekend dinner!

Some years ago I witnessed this exchange between two acquaintances, as we all picked up our children at 6PM from an activity:

“I guess now I have to decide what’s for dinner.”

“I’m going to get a pizza on the way home.  We had Subway last night.”

This really surprised me, because, in those years that I worked only about quarter-time, I saw DIY tasks, particularly cooking, which has the potential to save a huge amount of money, as part of my contribution to our living on one salary.  I thought that everyone would have started a crock pot dinner or have a plan for something quick to cook on their arrival home (“scrambled eggs and fruit” is one of my last-minute plans… but it beats fast food!).  Since returning to full-time (or more) work, I’ve honed my previous routines to save time.  Continue reading “Weeknight Meals, December”

Family Holiday Traditions: How We Do the Season

background-2937873_1920Kelli says:  I was thinking it might be nice to get and share some ideas for traditions that work well for younger kids and older kids and how they might change over the years.  So Ilse and I have put our heads together to share some our favorites, and at least in my case, sticking points with developing traditions with my younguns.

Daily-excitement-in-December traditions – aka Advent Calendars or Elf on the Shelf

Kelli says:  We have an advent calendar, which we are filling with activities written on tags, but the 4 year old has emptied the calendar (frustrating me, because a few of the activities are meant to go on certain days), and also has expressed his distaste at the apparent unexcitement of some of the already-revealed activities.  So I’m discouraged. We might not put it up next year but rather offer simple activities on nights where we all can handle them. I want there to be magic without pumping them full of sugar (candy’s the easy hit around here, but they are weirdly obsessive about it) and without filling the house (and planet) with more plastic crap.

We do not Elf due to our own overload but I think my kids would have liked it better than the Advent calendar anyway, which hasn’t been much easier to pull off.

Ilse says: Mari painted a wooden Advent calendar one year; it has a small drawer for each day and came with tiny paintable ornaments that fit in the drawers.  We’ve also printed easy activities for each day – such as, “decide which house on the block has your favorite lights,” or “make pancakes for breakfast.” More complicated activities can go on the weekend days.  

Activities in the community

Kelli says:  We’re strongly entrenched in the Santa years, so a visit is always a must.  We’ve let go of the professional photo Santa visit though as the price kept climbing and climbing.  I think this year we’ll see him at the Rec Center attached to school next week. My home town, where my parents still live, has a lighted parade and tree lighting just after Thanksgiving and that was really fun to kick off the season this year.  I think that’s a definite repeat. I’d like to add in simple things like sledding at school and ice skating, too. We live just two block from a rink with free rentals, but it’s not ready yet this year.

Ilse says: I’ve learned to aim low over the years when it comes to activities.  We’re a family of introverts and we all need some down time after the work/school week.  We’re usually pretty happy to spend time in our house reading, cooking, crafting, listening to music, and just being.  So while we live in an area where there are many fun activities of all kinds every weekend, I always ask myself what we would all enjoy the most at any given moment.  Just getting outside is a huge pleasure after a week in buildings; today we walked on a sunlit, frozen lake with our dog jumping around, delighted with the snow.

Travel

Ilse says:  Our biggest holiday tradition is the annual drive over the river and through the woods and then over the river again, across hundreds of miles of cornfields, past two windfarms, to grandmother’s house.  It’s always an adventure to travel in the Midwest at this time of year. One year, as we were driving home very slowly through freezing rain, I proposed that we visit Mari’s grandma in the summer instead, and both Thom and Mari expressed disbelief that I could even suggest such a thing. We don’t have any family in Minnesota, so this is Mari’s chance to be around some of her cousins, as well as to load up on attention from Grandma and a ridiculous quantity of sugar.  The extended family has a Christmas Day brunch, during which Mari and her younger cousins used to run around like a pack of coyotes, but now she reads a book while waiting for the adults to finish talking. Grandma lives in an old neighborhood, and our dog goes along, so we take lots of walks at all hours of the day in all directions and admire the holiday decorations. This year, Mari will be able to help out with the driving!

Kelli says:  We have all our immediate family within an hour of here, which is nice.  Some extended family lives several hours’ or days’ drive away, but we’ve never really gotten together at the holidays, and that’s ok.  We are both teachers, though, so we do tend to like a mini trip over the Xmas break. This year we are thinking about a hotel near the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.  It’s close to us, but not super duper close, so the idea is go to the holiday lights, swim in the hotel pool, sleep over, get up the next day and swim some more, then join some family for brunch on that side of town.  Last year we were at a condo with my in-laws and my parents and happened to be able to get in a visit to Bentleyville.  So I guess a mini-break is kind of turning into a tradition.  Before kids, we loved going to Tettegouche Camp over the break, but we haven’t tackled the 1.5 mile walk in with the kids yet.  We are waiting until our youngest potty trains – so maybe next year we can go again?

Gifting

Ilse says:  We make and buy gifts for friends and family, but our gifting has been drastically simplified over the years, with fewer people in our exchange circle. This year, our family gift is the one thing we always want most in January, which is to leave Minnesota for a few days for a warm, sunny place. Not frugal, not simple except that it doesn’t require shopping trips or wrapping paper, but something that we will all thoroughly enjoy.

Kelli says:  This has been the hardest for us.  I think we have finally settled on having a stocking of gifts from Santa, and 1-2 big gifts from mom & dad and from each sibling to the other under the tree.  Last year we waaaaay overbought and I suspect we have this year as well, though we’ve stuck to mostly stuff they need anyway (fun undies, new socks) and books rather than toys.  They will get plenty of those from rellies. Which reminds me – I kind of want to make an annual toy purge part of the December traditions. Kind of a pre-Christmas cleanout, so to speak.  

I fantasize about homemade Xmas gifts but the reality of the past few years has been a big fat NO WAY.  Luckily, all of the adults in our immediate families are off the gifting train now, so it’s not too many people to whom we need to gift.  I’m thinking of getting back on for teachers – but as a teacher, I know how nice it is to get a big fat gift card, too. So this year, that’s the route we went.

Making

Ilse says:  For a number of years, Mari and I worked on Christmas crafts together.  Sometimes they were gifts for others, and sometimes they were decorations for our house.  That was something that we both enjoyed doing, and now we have them to remind us each year of that time together (now our co-crafting time tends to be more focused on making gifts for our individual friends).  Some of them took multiple holiday seasons (i.e., years) to complete, but the idea was the time spent together, not the product.

Kelli says:  This year I had Norwood paint his own wrapping paper for the gifts he’s selected.  They do like making and so does their dad and so do I. Maybe something to integrate as they get older.

Togetherness and relaxation

Kelli says:  Rudolph and Charlie Brown Christmas are a must, and conveniently for having little kids, we have both of them on DVD – and VHS!  (Ok, tangent: Ha! That’s right! We are still VHS users). We also have a wood burning fireplace that we’ve used ONCE in living here for over 5 years now and I really want to make fires part of the holiday season.

Ilse says:  Mari and I decorate our tree and bake holiday-special cookies (her favorites are spritz, for which we use her great-grandmother’s cookie press), and she and Thom hang lights outside.  Sometimes two or three of us will play holiday songs on various instruments. We always watch particular Christmas movies and cartoons (and Kelli, we watch Charlie Brown on VHS also!).

Food!

Ilse says:  Some families have a lot of holiday food traditions.  Our holiday meals vary from year to year. When we’re at Grandma’s, I do all the cooking, and it’s a change-resistant audience, so I stick with reliable favorites.  But there are some food traditions that come yearly: the package from my parents, Mari’s out-West grandparents, filled with cookies I’ve been eating since childhood, my parents’ rendition of my great-grandmother’s stollen, and the fudge my mom’s made every Christmas since the 1970s.

Kelli says:  We just lost my husband’s mother in November.  Her cookies were a highlight of every holiday. Sadly I cannot find the copies of her recipes that we had.  I know they are somewhere . . . but we might have to have “close enough” recipes for this year. She always made sugar cut-out cookies, Mexican wedding cookies/Russian tea cakes, and some kind of amazing cookie rolled in nuts.  She also always made a potica nut roll, but I’m not sure we’ll tackle that one. The adults have always enjoyed chili and grasshoppers on Christmas Eve.

In the past I did peanut brittle in the microwave and it was amazing.  Maybe I should resurrect that with the kids – it’s fun to watch it foam, and easy to make.

Your turn

What simple traditions have been the most memorable over the years for your family?  How have traditions changed over the years that may have been cherished – or difficult – with young children?