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.

11-29-18 Advice on Writing from Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time captured my young imagination and I went on to read nearly everything that Madeleine L’Engle wrote.  The Arm of the Starfish, which combined likable characters, science, and international intrigue, was my favorite, and it is one of the books that has withstood rereading as an adult.  Near the 100th anniversary of her birth, I’ll share this advice that she prefaces as being for writers, but which seems to me to be good advice for anyone, especially given the documented effect of writing on health:

I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important:

First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.

And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write.

The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.

— Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Keeping spirits bright

snowwmWinter in the northern latitudes is a challenge, a marathon, an endurance test. A few months ago, we were basking in so much sunlight that it almost seemed pointless to go to sleep, and now we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum: on a chilly, cloudy, rainy day like today, with abbreviated sunlight hours, hibernating in my pajamas seems attractive… a marked contrast to the summer months of hours outdoors every day, absorbing light and being active.

In recent years, research on circadian rhythms has provided ample evidence that getting bright sunlight early in the day is important not only for mood and sleep, but for overall health. Continue reading “Keeping spirits bright”

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.

On Comparison

Today is Thanksgiving, and I’m sitting here in my warm house, in front of glowing candles in the fireplace and – in my eyes – a Better Homes and Gardens-worthy mantel, reflecting on the day.  We went to my brother-in-law’s beautiful new lakeside home to celebrate our first Thanksgiving since losing my mother-in-law just last week.  She was a timeless hostess.  She’d stepped back from doing the big meals the last few years, but it didn’t matter today.  She and her ever gracious hostess presence was warmly remembered around the table and more than a few tears were shed.

Now, my little family does NOT live in a brand new lakeside home.  We live in a 1926 Tudor in a beautiful neighborhood in St. Paul.  When we moved in, it felt palatial.  We’d lived in a matchbox of a 1917 bungalow with an awful layout and really lived in about 600 square feet of it and deposited our junk in the other 300 barely usable square feet upstairs.  So to get a 1400 square foot house felt amazing.  But when I go to my brother-in-law’s, the thoughts of comparison start marching through my mind . . . I wish I lived on a lake.  No cracks in the plaster here.  I bet he pays less in property taxes on a house twice as big.  They have so much space!  The fact that he has to drive an hour to work is kind of lost in all the comparison.  Or that they have to clean that whole place.  Or pay for it . . . for how long?

Emotionally, life’s been a little hard lately, and so also lately, I’m kind of obsessing about home improvements – stuff that should be low on the current priority list.  Painting the living room/dining room/sun room/stairway.  Getting a big girl bed for my daughter who I’d really rather keep in the crib anyway.  Scraping the popcorn coating and skimcoating the ceilings because it’s clear WHY they put that popcorn up in the first place – to cover the humongous fissures in the plaster.  (See how I wrote “should be low on the priority list?”  Bear with me.  That’s important later.)

I suppose it’s easier to window shop online and browse Pinterest for paint colors than to be sad that my mother-in-law died, or to face that I’m really not committing to losing that weight, or to admit that no matter how bad I would like to be a self-employed person I’ve taken no more steps toward doing so than making some lists of ideas in my journal, or that it’s generally grey and dark right now and I’m kinda sluggin’ it up around here.

So I’m starting to indulge in this dangerous game of comparison.  It’s a thief of joy, or should I say of feeling my emotions fully?  Because I’m not really trying to escape joy here, am I?  So then I’m letting these thoughts of envy lead me into activities and thoughts that distract me from feelings I need to feel.  I’m letting it lead me into imagining it would be better to trade up the whole house rather than spend a few hundred bucks on a paint color I like better and that we could actually wipe clean or maybe a few thousand in getting properly sized furniture for the quirky layout of the living room.  AND WHAT IF I MISS THE BLACK FRIDAY DEALS ON THE BIG GIRL BEDS?!?!

I’ll allow myself to make my home the way I want, but I’m gonna force myself to make a decision.  No more bed browsing.  Now I know that the bed I want exists, and when it’s time to get it, we will.  No need to worry about Black Friday.  There will be another sale.  No more fantasizing about paint.  I’ll buy it and hire our handyman to paint, or move on.  I’m getting better at this decision making stuff.  It’s all a journey.  I’m learning how to recognize when I’m envious, when I’m distracting myself from needing to feel, and when – gosh darn it – I’m just actually really tired of the handprinted, penciled up paint color and want something fresh and new on the walls.  And it might cost money.  And that is allowed.

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.