I don’t always monitor all expenses, but I periodically track for a few months to see how close we’re adhering to our budget. Groceries are one area where there is some flexibility in the monthly budget, but with the numerous decisions made in a week’s shopping and cooking, it’s easy to exceed intended expenditures. After reviewing the past two months of spending, I found that our grocery spending is slightly less than half of the USDA thrifty food plan estimate for our family, even in the winter when we don’t have free garden produce. A year ago, before Mari became a vegetarian, we were exactly at the half-of-thrifty mark. I was so startled by this that I’ve checked it twice. I guess I should look elsewhere for places to save in our budget. Every week I ask Thom and Mari if there’s anything they’d like in the coming week’s meals, and it’s usually the same things, with no unusual grocery purchases.
Our grocery routines appear to be working for us. They are
1. Buying in season and shopping the deals. I buy groceries primarily at Aldi and Costco, with periodic trips to Fresh Thyme, Trader Joe’s, the Asian markets, and the food coop, depending on what we need, averaging 2 stores/week.
2. Pantry and freezer. I never worry about running out of groceries in a snowstorm. And very rarely will I stop at a store to get one ingredient. Fewer trips generally result in less spending.
3. Near zero food waste. I freeze leftovers in meal-sized portions, and many of them become my workday lunches. I cook a lot of produce without seasoning so that it can be refrigerated or frozen until I’m ready to add it to other meals (and season then).
4. Cooking everything. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, every day. It is the routine now and it makes a meal out far more special than when Thom and I ate out most weekdays in our early years together. And it should be a special event, because a decent restaurant meal for 3 costs as much as a week’s groceries.
5. No soda or junk food. If we want dessert, we make it. Our usual snacks are fruit, popcorn, homemade bread, or homemade trail mix. I think that my great-grandmothers would recognize all the foods in my pantry, aside from the large array of spices for foods of the world. (Except the broccoli. My dad tells me that he never saw broccoli when he was a kid.)
Ilse: When I was a kid, we lived in a suburban development at the edge of the woods. My parents taught me to rake the autumn leaves onto an old sheet, gather the corners, and haul them either to the garden or into the woods. Our next-door neighbors collected their leaves in trash bags and left them on the road for the garbage truck. My dad was incensed by this waste and, ignoring the mortification of his teenaged daughter, gathered these bags of compost-in-waiting, dumped them on our garden, and reused the trash bags.
What I’m getting at is, I’ve been learning waste reduction for a long time.
So, ladies: this month’s questions.
What inspires your waste reduction efforts?
Stephanie: I know I should say something altruistic, but the truth is, my primary reason is that it’s expensive to pay for trash removal for 9 people. Other factors affect it too. I have always intrinsically disliked wastefulness. I think that’s somewhat ingrained in the culture in our part of the upper Midwest. The dominant groups that settled this area, Germans and Scandinavians, tend to place a high value on efficiency, and waste is inefficient.
Kelli: Three prongs here: 1) the forever-ness of plastic trash in particular, 2) the savings up front, as Stephanie mentioned, on the collection end, and 3) the challenge of it.
Ilse: I learned many low-waste habits from my efficient and thrifty grandparents. As an engineering student, I learned how many materials are made, and the amount of energy that goes into making aluminum cans or glass bottles is staggering. The idea of using something once and having it forever occupy space in a landfill horrifies me.
What are the areas of low-hanging fruit? That is, the 80% of results for 20% of effort or cost?
Stephanie: Getting my kids to quit breaking things would be a good start, but that’s more than 20% effort. LOL. Honestly, composting is a big one. In the summer I was pretty good about it, but the compost pile is out by my garden, which is about an acre and a half from my house, and kind of a trudge in the snow, and when it’s dark when I leave and when I get home, it’s harder to do. I need to start snow blowing a path to it, or even start a second compost pile closer to the house. The other one is food waste. I need to figure out how to better tackle food waste.
Kelli: I notice quite a bit more convenience food wrapping in the garbage can lately, particularly for precut and frozen fruits and veg. I wonder where I can buy some more in bulk, or cut our own fruits and veggies. But I also know that it all comes with a tradeoff – while I can buy whole fruits and veg and cut them myself, I also have neck pain that is triggered by looking down at the countertop, and when I buy them bagged/frozen, I eat a lot more of them. So will I be sacrificing healthy eating for the savings in plastic? I need to work on this thought. How can I have both? How can I involve my hubby in the chopping, for example? Also, would I need a salad spinner to accomplish it? Another area that would help a lot is to finish up potty training my youngest. She is close, and if we really did a dedicated push we could get her most of the way there.
Ilse: I agree, Kelli, that frozen vegetables are a huge time saver! Some recycling places do accept those bags. What I’ve been working on recently is reducing non-recyclable packaging, large and small. Given the choice between a doodad that comes in that awful hard plastic packaging and a cardboard box, I’ll choose the box, or, if an option, no package. On the small end, I drink a lot of tea. I’m avoiding brands of tea that use plastic or foil wrappers.
What will you never do, even though it would reduce your household waste?
Stephanie: They will pry my toilet paper from my cold, dead hands. LOL. Also, ordering from Amazon. Holy packaging, Batman, but I’m a working mom who lives in a rural area, and delivery is my best friend.
Kelli: The only thing, I think, is cloth diapers. We did it for a long time. We are done with it. I can’t think of anything else that’s off the table, though there are lots of things I am not currently doing. Maybe I would not do one of those total bans on buying new items. Too stressful right now.
Also, would I really give up my car, even though we’re in a station in life where really, truly we could do it and it not be a huge hardship? We live in a city well-provisioned with transit, rife with Ubers and Lyfts, and my son and I can walk 2 blocks to work/school and groceries as well as about 8 blocks to a pharmacy, ATM, several restaurants . . . we have everything we need within 2 miles at the most. My husband needs a car to get to his suburban job, and my daughter’s daycare is not easy to get to on transit, so we’d have one vehicle for sure, yet we maintain and drive two vehicles.
Ilse: I love visiting places where I don’t need a car at all, but I don’t see us moving to the city anytime soon, and the transit options for my commute double the time. And although we did cloth diapers, I’m with Stephanie on the TP.
What will you do this month to create new waste reduction routines?
Stephanie: I’m going to find a spot closer to the house for a winter compost pile. I’m also going to work on using leftovers for my lunches. I did that for a while, but my containers went missing, and I stopped.
Kelli: I think we will work on the potty training.
Ilse: Toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, dental floss containers, and deodorant holders are almost never marked for recycling, but I found a place to take them and will start a bin in the garage to store the empties until it’s convenient to drop them off. I’m also going to look into cat litter options… last time I explored the alternatives was about 10 years ago, so maybe something better (and acceptable to our cats) has come along.
We’ve written before about trying to maximize our time and efficiency. Isn’t that what everyone wants, really – more time for what one wants to do? But then the minutes are frittered away here and there, and another day is gone without all priorities accomplished. As much as I’ve focused on this in my own life, I am still guilty of losing minutes to my cell phone, reading too much news, or, my number one mechanism for losing both time and sleep, worrying.
Technology was supposed to make our lives easier, right? Well, I think it has backfired. Wired and wireless everything make some tasks so easy that we can just sit around and doodle on the phone, even sometimes fooling ourselves into thinking that we’re getting work done. Gadgets do a lot of things, but none of them actually cook dinner, walk the dog, or think for me. You know, the essentials. And that’s good, because I want to keep doing those things, even though some days the words in my head are, Seriously? Didn’t I just feed you guys, last night?
What smartphones have done is show everyone how much time we all have to waste. Because whether or not we think we have time to burn, it’s happening. And I think that has sparked a lot of interest in returning to mindful use of time. Recently I’ve seen this topic discussed on several blogs:
The Beginning of a Digital Revolution, Cal Newport. I found Newport’s Deep Work to be full of practical suggestions for improving my usage of time, and look forward to reading Digital Minimalism. I am definitely ready for a digital revolution!
Thinking Time at My Simpler Life, Beth Dargis. Emulate Leonardo da Vinci by adding “thinking time” to your schedule to make room for brainstorming and planning.
I’m still reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits and thinking about ways to make my days 1% more efficient. This week’s change has been the extra 3 minutes of chore time per day. Mari has chosen to get hers all done in one evening, but I like just having one more small thing to do after finishing dinner: I feel productive and I still get to sit down and read with my cats.
I’m on my annual winter planning kick. February is always a really hard time for me, and planning for spring makes it all seem that much more doable. This is the time of year that I revisit our budget, plan my garden and basically look at everything we do and make sure it’s going smoothly.
In the past I’ve relied on my phone calendar, spreadsheets and pages documents, but this year I am going back to analog methods. As much as I love technology, too much of it seems to decrease my productivity rather than increase it. My ADHD brain has trouble resisting the temptation to check Facebook, or email, and if I’m on my phone, I’m more likely to get pestered by my phone-less younger kids into looking up the land speed of a velociraptor, or information on King Edward I’s famous trebuchet, Warwolf.
A friend told me recently that she had heard that for ADHD people, all organizational tasks should be one step. Keep it as simple as possible, so you’ll actually keep it up.
My weapons this year are a simple, large desk calendar, a planner I found in the discount section, that I am using to track bills and expenses, and a notebook on my “Command Center” desk in the living room.
On Thursday, when family folders come home, I have kids come up to me one at a time. We go through them together and I write all important information on the calendar. Then I immediately toss the papers, because if I have extra papers around I get easily confused and overwhelmed. Any papers I need to sign are signed and immediately put in the children’s backpack, where they have about a 50/50 chance of actually reaching the teacher. But, hey, I tried. Papers the children need to deal with are put into their section of an accordion-style file folder. That part is not working quite as well as the rest of it. To be honest, that’s where homework, which is still not mandatory at the younger kids’ ages, goes to die. At the moment I am fine with that, because we can either take the time to do homework, or get our stuff ready for tomorrow and get in bed at a reasonable hour. There simply isn’t time for both, and with a 7:00am bus pick up time, I’ve chosen bedtime as my hill to die on.
For my financial tracking, I have every bill listed on it’s due date in the calendar section of my planner, and every payday, whether it’s Zach’s or mine, listed as well. I use a pencil for bills, and a pen for income, rather than colour coding, because all it takes is one day that I can’t find a red pen, and I’ll give up doing it. I can almost always dig up a pencil or a pen. If extra money comes in, I write it in on the date it came in, again in pen.
On Saturdays, I open the bank app on my phone (I do use a little technology) and copy down the expenses in the daily section of the planner. I make notes on what the money was spent on, and add it up by category. That helps give me a visual idea of what is going where, and how much is left in the budget for the following weeks.
My notebook is my catch-all for everything else. I tried bullet journaling, but the legwork of indexing and numbering pages, and figuring out how much space I might need for something was too much for me. I really do need it to be one step. Write stuff down. The end. I have 40 years of experience sorting through my messy, random thoughts. I’ll find what I need to find. I did find that I enjoyed the brain dump notebook a lot more when I had a nice set of gel pens and could make things colourful and prettier. I may need to put those on my list.
I do still need to figure out an efficient system for paperwork and mail. Right now I have a magazine file box that I just stick it all into, but I’m not good at doing anything with it, or finding what I need to find. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Having lived in the low desert, I truly appreciate the 4-season climate of Minnesota. I enjoy every season, and make efforts to celebrate the wonders and joys of the seasonal cycle, but there are times when I’ve had too many subzero winter days, or too much of summer’s humidity, or too much spring rain.
This has been a mild winter overall, although we’re currently experiencing extreme cold that has closed schools for most of the week. Oddly enough, soon the temperatures will be warmer than normal and it will feel like spring.
When we are in the midst of an arctic blast, are feeling like moles due to the short daylight hours, or are tired of shoveling snow, a few of the things we like to do to are
Visit an indoor garden or zoo
Cook summery foods
Have an indoor picnic
Watch movies set in sunny, warm locations
Look at photos from past summers
Today I put together this soup, not even thinking of summer, but when I sat down to eat, its bright colors and warm aroma breathed the word to me.
Summer in Winter Soup
1/2 lb great northern beans
1 very large onion, or 2 of average size, chopped fine
1 large red bell pepper, in small dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 c frozen corn
1 small red potato, in small dice
salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric
stems of 1 large bunch cilantro, chopped
Cook the beans by your favorite method and reserve the cooking water (or use 1-2 cans). Saute the onion and bell pepper, then add garlic, beans and cooking water, potato, corn, and cilantro stems. Add sufficient water to just cover, then season with turmeric, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Use an immersion or regular blender to puree a small amount of the soup, and stir. Garnish with more cilantro if desired.
We are heading into day three of a string of Polar Vortex no school days, and I thought it might be helpful to do a post of ideas for kids activities that are more fun than the Lord of the Flies shenanigans they seem to have planned. The novelty of movies has more than worn off, and they have serious cabin fever. I tried to pick things that don’t require a bunch of materials you might not have at home, because no one wants to go shopping in this weather..
1. Learn a dance from a YouTube Tutorial. The Waltz, Running Man, the Cabbage Patch, the Floss. It will keep them active, mind and body.
2. Homemade play dough. Use your real baking equipment and play bake shop.
3. Learn a new card game. Kings on the corner is a fun and easy one, or Crazy Eights.
5. Bake a crazy cake. No eggs. No butter. No milk. By this point in the cold snap, my supplies are running low. A crazy cake, popular in the Great Depression, is part science experiment, party history lesson, part tasty snack. If you don’t have the ingredients for frosting, you can dust it with powdered sugar, or even leave it plain.
6. Do a drawing tutorial from YouTube. Serve hot chocolate and make it the kid equivalent of a wine and paint night.
7. Make a toy village from recyclables.
8. Armchair travel. Watch a travel documentary on a faraway location, and make some sort of food from that country. Tortillas from Mexico, curry from India, or pasta from Italy. Pick something that you have ingredients for on hand.
9. Write your own comic book. Make up a new superhero and tell his or her origin story.
10. Build a fort. This is classic snow day fun for a reason. It’s cheap, easy and hours of fun.
From one stuck parent to another, may the odds be ever in your favour