Cooking for a Crowd, Everyday


I’ve mentioned before that ever since I’ve been back to work, freezer cooking has been my lifesaver. It’s not the first time I’ve used this method in my parenting career, and I’ve been tweaking my techniques for a few years now, and figured I’d share them.
-For a while, I did once a month cooking, but that ended up being too much to hack when the meals I was making were twice the size of the average family’s. I’ve never had a huge kitchen, and there are only so many dishes I could manage after an entire day of cooking. It would end up being a 2-3 day long event, after which I was really tired. I switched to cooking for two weeks at a time and found it to be much more manageable.
-I enlist the help of my older kids. James can make rice in the rice cooker, Bella can brown the ground beef, and Cheyenne can use her special cleaning magic powers to help me clean up. (I don’t know how I merited having a teenage daughter who likes to clean. I annoy her with my slovenly ways.) Even Travis, Charlotte and Veronica can open cans, or run veggie scraps out to the compost.
-Sometimes I compromise and buy things pre-chopped, like onions. I can get a bag of frozen chopped onions for about $1. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s not a bank-breaker, and the take-out I’d end up eating if I didn’t have food pre-made would be. Bonus points, no one whines at me about the onions hurting their eyes.
-I stopped using disposable pans. I do not love disposable stuff, and I freezer cook often enough to justify a little investment in the project. Walmart has 9×13 pans for under $4, so I just started buying a couple each time I went, and pretty soon had a respectable stash of them.
-If I’m making something like chicken legs, and I know it will be one of the meals I toss in the crockpot on the day we eat it, I’ll freeze the legs separately before adding them to the bag. Otherwise, they freeze in a clump, and it’s a craps shoot whether or not they will fit nicely in the crockpot on cooking day.
-Certain things, like chili, or beef stew, I never make in anything smaller than an electric roaster oven. We’ll eat it often enough that, if I’m going to go to the trouble of making it at all, I might as well make two or three. I usually make at least one roaster oven of some kind of stew or soup on freezer cooking day, which also doubles as that day’s dinner. We can all take a bowl and there is still enough leftover for two meals. This cuts down on what used to happen, spending all day cooking only to order a pizza for dinner.
Overall, this seems to be the method I’m having the most success with at the moment. Weeknight dinners are easy to make, and easier to clean up, leaving more time for spending with my kids. It’s kept my eating out budget in check, and given me more rest at the end of a busy day.

My Formula for Meal Planning

Meal planning doesn’t scare me as much as it seems to scare other people. In August, before school started, I sat down and planned out four months of menus. I wouldn’t normally be that on top of things, but because I was nervous about my first semester as a full time working mom, I figured I should probably have some kind of plan in place. I’m a big fan of variety. As easy as it would be to have every Tuesday be tacos, every Friday be pizza, and every Monday be spaghetti, I wouldn’t stick to a meal plan like that because I would get restless and bored. I decided that what I could do was to create a similar framework, but with categories assigned to each day of the week, instead of a single meal. The categories can change from month to month, or they can stay the same.

So, for example, in August Monday is pasta night, in September it’s Mexican food, in October it’s chicken, and in November it’s pork. Wednesday night is soup and sandwich, or soup and salad, all three months, because we really like soup, and there is a wide variety of soup recipes we can make.

The benefit of this framework is that when you sit down to pick out recipes, you don’t ask yourself overwhelming questions like. “What 31 things in all of creation do I feel like making for dinner this month?” You ask yourself manageable questions like, “What four hot dishes (casseroles) sound good in December.”

I’ve compiled a list of categories that I’ve used before, in case anyone finds it helpful to use.

  1. Soup and sandwich
  2. Soup, salad and breadsticks (like Olive Garden)
  3. Hot dish (for those outside of our area, a hot dish is a casserole)
  4. Sliders (these are easy and there are a lot of variants)
  5. Burgers
  6. Meatballs
  7. Pasta
  8. Mexican
  9. Roasts
  10. Chicken
  11. Pork
  12. Beef
  13. Meatless
  14. Brinner
  15. Stew
  16. Pot pie
  17. Eggs
  18. Salads
  19. German
  20. Cold/Hot sandwiches

I do usually repeat the same thing every Friday for a month, but rotate what that is between waffles and make-your-own pizza. I have one of my big boys, James for waffles, and Travis for pizza, that is in charge of being the meal helper on Fridays, so they alternate months. They enjoy it a lot. We also have a standing date with my dad one Friday a month for fish fry at a local supper club, in the longstanding Wisconsin tradition. Most Saturdays we either have a hot dog cookout by the bonfire, with s’mores, or, if the weather is bad, sliders and some kind of chips or crackers and dip for a game night indoors. It’s not a perfect system, but it works pretty well for us.

The Importance of Being Stephanie- Organization

IMG_9622IMG_9622My bookshelves used to be littered with books trying to somehow get my life in order. Books about parenting, cleaning, organizing and decorating. Magazine articles about the perfect way to rorganize a chest freezer. I’ve tried Flylady, konmari and I’ve read books about minimalism, but I’ve never really been able to follow through with any of it, though I’ve continued to search for that perfect system that will somehow bring order to my chaos and peace to my life.
The older I’m getting the less I think there is such a system, because no system is going to be able to accurately address all of the myriad of personality traits and circumstances that add up to make up my, or anyone else’s, particular life. I still enjoy them, and glean from the ideas the things I think that might work for me. I just don’t hang my hat on any one way of doing things.
I’m still in a very transitional phase. Even though we have owned our home for a year now, because of serious delays in construction, we are still living with most of our stuff packed up, and no ability to really stretch our legs into the space and settle in. It’s been tiring, but it’s also been a good opportunity to see what we really need, what we don’t, and what it is that we long for when we don’t have it. I think, when we finally do unpack, it will be a simpler vision than I originally had that will take shape inside these walls.
It’s given me a chance to think about who I am, and who my family is, and how we do things, which is completely different than it was a year ago, when we were a homeschooling family with a stay-at-home mom. Here are some things I have learned about the new us.
1. Elaborate cooking is now a thing we only do on the weekends, and even then, only occasionally. I love to cook, but when I get home from work, I now want to rest. I’ve taken up freezer cooking every other weekend, and most nights, when we get home, some sort of freezer meal gets put in the oven. I originally pictured having an old fashioned country-style pantry in the basement for home canned goods. That might be something I want to do in the future, but at the moment, it’s not my big priority. Setting things up to make my freezer cooking days easier is a bigger deal to me right now.
2. I was originally thinking that I would turn one of the spare rooms into a sewing room. I do enjoy sewing, and so does Bella, but I’m not sure, at this point, that we do it enough to devote a room to it. What I have taken to doing a lot of is writing. I am going to be keeping a desk in one of the spare bedrooms now and using it as an office space for myself. I like to be close to the action, so I am available for my children, but also have a little more quiet than the public spaces of the house generally afford me. This is good for all of us, too, because I am a much calmer person when I am not overstimulated.
3. We don’t need a lot of toys. One nice thing about having a large family is that my kids have other people to play with all of the time. They have solid imaginations, and good relationships with each other, so about 80% of their playtime is spent pretending. They also enjoy reading, LEGOs and artistic pursuits. They’d rather bake a real cake than play with a play kitchen, so real life activities are a big part of their life, too.
4. We do our best studying on the bed. Zach and I have a king sized bed, and the kids like to come into our room one or two at a time in the evenings to work on their homework. I have a couple of clipboards they can use, and a little magazine file for books. It’s a nice atmosphere. Whoever is studying gets some quiet alone time with me, and anyone who doesn’t have homework gets a chance to come in and read to me.
5. We get dressed for school best if outfits are hung up on hooks, or placed in drawers, as an entire outfit. The bus comes at 7:00am and decision making is not something our brains are ready for that early. Being able to grab an entire outfit and throw it on without having to think about it makes for fewer arguments and meltdowns. I’m also learning that most of my kids prefer hanging their clothes to folding them.
None of this is stuff I could have gotten from a one-size-fits-all approach, because every one of those things would be different in a different family. It’s what works for us because we are, well, us.

Doing Something is Better than Nothing

 

IMG_9530.JPGWe like to pick on the Millenials a lot in our culture. By most standards I, at 40 years old, dwell in the generational borderlands between Gen X and the Millenials, but the generational trait I have found to be the most hindering in my life, has probably been my Gen X cynicism. It was not cool to care about things when I was young. The goal was to remain aloof and never let on that you really liked anything, or were attached to any particular outcome, lest you be let down when it didn’t come to fruition. “What’s the point?” was the prevailing attitude. I don’t know if this is just my reaction to that, or a wider cultural phenomenon, but somehow the idea that doing something little, or doing something badly, was not worth the effort. In spite of the fact that traditional wisdom, and plenty of research, tell us that the cumulative effect of small acts, and the practice of even things we do badly, eventually yield pretty powerful results, I still struggle with it. My natural impulse is to not try, or give up quickly. That’s a good way to live a stunted life.
I’ve decided to adopt a resolution that doing something is better than doing nothing. Today is my daughter’s feast day. In the Catholic tradition, the feast day of the saint who’s name you share is a minor holiday of sorts. I used to be really good at celebrating feast days, but ever since I had Colin, I’ve been off my game. I love celebrating. That is a gift I received from my mother, who was a gifted celebrator. Every holiday was a wonderland of decorations, carefully thought out and perfectly wrapped gifts, and elaborate foodstuffs. I remember my childhood celebrations with so much warmth and affection, and even now that she is gone, the thought of them makes me feel closer to her. My grandmother was similarly talented. You can usually tell which gift is from me because it’s the one that looks like it was wrapped by a visually impaired third grader.
My temptation today, when I am busy and tired, is to skip the feast day celebration, because if all I can muster up is some cake mix cupcakes, or boxed brownie mix, why bother? But I know that even these little things, the memory of her little cupcake on the special plate, will someday warm my daughter’s heart exactly the same way the thought of my mother’s extravaganzas warms mine. I know that when the elderly people I work with reminisce, they remember the simple, daily things of life with as much fondness as the travels around the world. It doesn’t have to be big to have an impact.

Thanksgiving Simplified: Lessons from my Mother 


This year, since the loss of my mother, who was the queen of holidays, I  working on changing up our holiday celebrations. I have so many wonderful, glowing memories of her over-the-top celebrations. I truly enjoyed every one of them, but I am not my mother. She greatly enjoyed every bit of time and energy she put into our holiday celebrations, so the work was not a burden to her, but a joy. When I became a mom, for many years I tried to keep my childhood holiday traditions, the things my mother enjoyed doing, and add to them the parts that I enjoyed doing. I ended up pretty overwhelmed. This year, I’m working on simplifying Thanksgiving by paring it back to the things that are enjoyable to the people actually celebrating this year. 

Farming it out

My mom did not love to cook. She loved to decorate, do crafts, and shop for holiday supplies. She loved to set a tablescape fit for royalty, and have every little detail in place. She was willing to make the basics, but she did a lot of what she called “assembling” when it came to food. She knew the places to buy the best baked goods, appetizers, cheeses and desserts. She didn’t feel any pressure to make everything from scratch herself. I do love to cook, but I’m in a phase of life where trying to make everything myself is anything but a recipe for a happy holiday. This year, I am planning on buying some of the pies from a church fundraiser. I’m buying Pillsbury crescent rolls instead of making my own. 

Sharing the Load 

In part because my mom didn’t love cooking the way I do, she had no problem asking other people to do their part. My dad  did as much of the cooking as my mom did, and I was contributing to the feast by the time I was 10. I loved it. This year I assigned each kid a dish. Cheyenne made the green bean casserole the Saturday before, and Bella made the mashed potatoes. James made the sweet potato casserole, and I made the stuffing. Bella volunteered to do a baking activity, and help the little girls make pumpkin and sweet cream pies. Zach is in charge of the turkey, Travis will make the crescent rolls and my dad will bring the cranberries. The kids are excited to show off their contributions, and I am less stressed. Bella loves to decorate, so she wants to take care of the table. 

Expectation Management

If it doesn’t look like a magazine shoot, that’s fine with me. The point is for our family to get together and enjoy each other’s company. Anything that takes away from that is not something we need in our celebration. Having teenagers now, I’m always surprised when they talk about things they did when they were little that seemed like no big deal to me, but made a big impact on them. It’s amazing how little we really need to be happy. 

Self care and scarcity

IMG_9551.JPGIn thinking about how I’m going to go about having this midlife crisis, wherein I dig out of of my 15 year phase of self neglect, I am finding it helpful to use the information I’ve gathered over the years from my work with children, my own and other people’s, and my work with the elderly. My mom, who went from being a preschool teacher to being a corporate trainer used to tell me, in reference to the transfer of skills from her old job to the new one, that people really didn’t change as much as they thought they did from 4 to 40. Their basic needs, the way they tick, and the things that help motivate them, were really pretty consistent across the years. My own experiences working with the very young and very old have shown that to be very true.
Teepa Snow, a popular dementia educator (if you love someone with dementia, you owe it to yourself to check her out) says that there are four major types of human activity that need to be addressed to create meaning in a person’s day. The first is productive activity. This can be paid or not. It’s what you contribute to society and your community. This is an area where I feel very blessed. Everyday, both at work and at home, presents me with ample opportunity to feel productive and contribute to the greater good. This particular kind of activity is not something most adults my age are conciously grateful for. We often have so much more opportunity for productive activity than we can realisticly handle that it feels more like a burden than a blessing. That is one gift that working with children and the elderly has given me. Seeing how much both groups struggle when they don’t feel as though they have a valuable contribution to make has helped me to cultivate gratitude for the work I have to do.
The second type is leisure activity. Things you do for their own sake. This can be anything from watching a game, playing cards, playing music, worship, or reading a novel. I could use a little work in this area, but not as much as you’d probably imagine. I am passionate enough about the things I do for their own sake that, when things do get out of balance in this area, I naturally push back and make time for them.
The third type of activity is self care. This is where I really fall down. The thing I have noticed is that most of my arguments to myself about why I should do better at this also surround the needs of others. If I were better rested, had better health, and took better care of myself, I would have more leftover to give. While this is true, I think it’s probably not a very good motivator for longterm change. Somehow I have to get to the point of valuing self care as much for my own sake as for others. How exactly I’m going to do that, I haven’t figured out yet.
The fourth type of activity is rest and restoration. This is also an area I struggle with, but again, not as badly as you might imagine. At 40 years old, my body just flat out refuses to cooperate anymore if it gets to the end of it’s energy and doesn’t get a recharge. Really, that window where you can just abuse yourself and push through without rest was short. I have some young coworkers who can pull 16 hour shifts, sleep three minutes, eat a bowl of ramen and get back to work. I remember being like that, but I had pretty much wrapped that phase of my life up by 25. Due to the lack of self care, my ability to recharge isn’t all that efficient, but it’s not completely neglected. Honestly, if there was one thing I would do differently in my youth, it would be to place a higher value on rest and restoration. It’s vastly underrated.
So the question, as it always is, is how to give myself the resources I need for better self care, when my resources are limited and already stretched. What kinds of self care am I most in need of? One source of frequent frustration between my husband and myself is that he is pretty good about just taking something if he needs it. If he needs new pants, he buys them. He doesn’t fret over it, or feel guilty over it. If his hair is getting too long, he cuts it. If he’s hungry, he eats. He’s not doing these things because he thinks he deserves them and I don’t. He’s doing them because they are reasonable self care, but I often take it personally, like he is taking a bigger slice of the pie. I constantly feel the pull of productive activity. I can’t decide how much of that is just reasonable, after all, there is a lot of productive activity that needs to be done, and I often feel like it’s not done very well, and how much of it is a habit of busyness. That is something I am really going to need to examine this year of I’m going to get a handle on this thing.

Community and Routine: Reflections on Breakfast and Goodness

IMG_9125.JPGEvery Saturday morning since we have lived here, Zach and I have gone out for breakfast at a little coffee shop just down the road a piece from our house. It’s a cute little place, with a cabin theme. Every Saturday, the owner and one of the two women who work there greet us, and, without even a question, bring us the same thing we always have. Coffee, caramel rolls and a croissant sandwich for Zach. Cream, but no sugar, for the coffee, and butter for the caramel roll. A group of older gentlemen, who also frequent the place every Saturday, greet us, and we ask each other about our respective weeks. We strike up a conversation with our servers about whatever is going on in our lives, and Zach and the owner, who owns a landscaping business, talk about the jobs they are working on now. I sit back and drink my coffee, listening to the sounds of the other patrons discussing the weather, and the crops, and the news from friends who are absent that day.  Zach plays a crossword puzzle on his phone, pausing frequently to ask my advice on a clue.

When I was 15 years old, almost 16, I took a job at the coffee shop down the street from my house, Java Joes. It was that year that I started PSEO at the University of Minnesota, and, in an anthropology class, was assigned to read the book, The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg.  The book introduced me to the concept of the Third Place, at the same time that Java Joes was introducing me to it’s reality. A third place is a place outside of home and work, like a coffee shop, a bookstore, a hair salon or a pub, where people come together with regularity, to set aside the cares of daily life, and socialize. In the book Oldenburg argues, and I agree, that such places are a bedrock of healthy communities.  The friendships made in these places are often lifelong. 25 years after I got the job at Java Joes, I still have friends that I made there. Working there exposed me to conversation with people of varying ages and walks of life, and gave me the opportunity, at a young age, to talk with them about everything that gives life value and meaning. In our modern world social media has taken up some of the functions of the third place, which I think is part of why it has become so wildly popular, but I don’t think it can completely replace it. There’s just something about the physical presence of the people and the shared experience that can’t be replicated online.

I can see the fruits of this kind of community building in my work with the elderly. The mere mention of the places that functioned as third places in this town when the residents were young brings smiles to their faces, and a flood of memories and questions about people they knew in common. The stories start to flow, and even without ever having been there, I feel like I’m an adopted member of the club.

I’ve felt a deep need for that kind of connection for a long time, and moving to a small town, with places like this, is finally filling that need. I owe a great deal of who I am today to the opportunities I had at Java Joes to share my thoughts, build relationships, sharpen my arguments by exposing them to real discussion, and sharpen my wit. I learned how to have real conversations and real friendships with people I didn’t always agree with, and how to be kind and respectful without losing my sense of identity. I can’t help but feel like the world could use more of that, these days.