Finding My Groove in a New Space

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As I mentioned in my this post, we recently moved to a smaller house in search of some simplicity.  We loved our old home and our neighborhood, but for many reasons it had become more of a drain than time, energy, and money permitted.  Finally, this past fall we decided to take the plunge and look for something new, and got lucky pretty quickly in locating a new house that fits our family’s needs almost perfectly. It is indeed smaller and much more simple, but also beautiful and more streamlined.

I was pretty stoked about this, but one area I had some sadness over was our kitchen.  Our old kitchen had some quirks: funky vinyl tiles in various shades of green, counter appliances that needed to be placed at awkward angles, a beloved but unreliable propane range, and a sink wedged into the very corner of the cabinets on an angle. (Note to prospective home buyers: if you have never seen this before and come across it, run the other way or plan to change it.  Your back will thank you.)

But I loved it.  It was open and spacious, had a marvelous pantry with loads of space, looked out into the dining room, and a lovely view of the pine trees in our back yard, and the blue jays landing on our back deck in the spring and summer.  The things I loved more than made up for the flaws.

The kitchen and dining areas in our new place are vastly different.  There is no formal dining room, and the living room/family area runs into the eating space.  The official kitchen area is more of an adjacent area to this space then its own entity, and is much, MUCH smaller than what I had before.  I was looking forward to cutting down some of our possessions, but because cooking and food prep is something I enjoy so much, I worried that I would find it cramped and having trouble fitting in the things I use on an almost daily basis.

A few weeks into officially living in the new space, and slowly moving things in and adjusting in a Tetris-like fashion, I am pleased to say that in this case, simplicity is good.  Things I’m loving:

  • Instead of feeling cramped and frustrated, I feel like I have more space and ease of motion while in the kitchen. The kitchen is much newer and has more modern finishes. I have never been particularly hung up on “modern” finishes such as stainless steel, and was perfectly happy with our white appliances, vinyl floor, and country oak cabinets…but I have to admit it is nice to have spaces that are sleek, in good repair, and easier to clean.
  • Instead of the awkward spread of appliances we had before, I now have – surprisingly – pretty much the same amount of room to store items, but they are now at arm’s reach as I am in the process of cooking. I didn’t realize how much I went back and forth constantly in the past.
  • Just off the dining area, there is a bump-out room that houses the laundry area as well as ample room for a large set of shelves, which is serving the same purpose as our old pantry (that may be my favorite part).
  • The dishwasher is quieter. Not a huge issue for me, but yay for other members of my family.
  • The sink is in a straightforward spot that does not require back contortions to wash dishes.
  • The kitchen is perfectly placed so that I can keep an eye on R while she is playing in the living area or having her after-school snack.
  • The back wall of windows. There are three large windows – along with the back patio door – lining the wall of the living area/eating space, and the kitchen faces these.  So I have a full view of the backyard and there is lots of light, which will be especially awesome in the summer when R and I are home a lot together.

I know that like anything, there will a bit of a honeymoon period with this house, and eventually there will be things that I would like to change or that I might wish were different.  But in general, I think our new home is going to fit our needs as a family very well, and the kitchen space in particular I think will be much more efficient than I imagined it could be.  I am going to enjoy getting acquainted with it.

By Nature, We are Different

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In the scenery of spring

there is nothing superior

nothing inferior;

flowering branches

are by nature

some short

some long.

— Zen Proverb

Nothing is exactly the same in nature, including human beings.  We are not less than because of our body size, or shape, or color.  We simply are who we are.

An Update on Meal Planning Tweaks

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Back in September, I posted about some tweaks I had been hoping to make to our meal planning rotation.  In general, things were going okay and having a rotation means much less stress on my part when meal times roll around.  But I still felt like there were a few areas that needed help: I felt like doing some kind of weekly meal prep would be useful in getting ahead; breakfast, lunches and snacks were still a question mark at times; I wanted meals to go further in terms of leftovers; and I felt like I often didn’t know what was in our pantry and freezer.  Several months later, I think there has been some progress.  Here’s how it’s been going:

Planning for simple meals and leftovers: Overall, this is going well.  I have been trying to build in more meals like pulled pork, our beloved meatballs and rice, and brown rice and lentil casserole (tastier than it sounds) that I know will stretch over a few days.  The great thing about these recipes is that they will usually cover a second night, plus a day or two of lunches for my husband and me.  The key to this has been to make sure to think specifically about this factor when I am thinking about the menu each week.  It doesn’t happen every single week, but most weeks.

Planning for breakfast, lunch, and snacks: Better, but still needs improvement.  Planning more for leftovers helps in terms of lunch, and since we usually have easy-to-grab items such as fruit and nuts around, snacks are decent.  I would like to get a little better at thinking about this quickly at the start of the week, so that I know to have some things on hand (thinking about what I actually want to eat helps).  I have been mixing up R’s breakfasts a little bit, which she’s enjoying, and would like to work more on my own (we don’t always eat at the same time).  For myself, I need to work on establishing some protein-rich options I enjoy to feel more full as the morning goes on – my biggest challenge at the moment.

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Neglecting pantry and freezer ingredients: This is taking care of itself right now, as we are moving to a new house! There has been a lot of gutting, sorting, and dumping happening.  Although we had an awesome pantry in our last house, there is also room in the laundry area in the new house just off the kitchen for a set of pantry shelves, which has worked out fantastic.  This area is brighter than the last one, and keeping everything confined to the shelves makes it easier to see what we have, and also much harder to cram things in haphazardly…which admittedly happened a lot before. Our freezers are newly cleaned and organized, and I am trying to use up staple ingredients I know we have before buying new ones (wheat berries, I’m looking at you).  We’ll see how it goes! Win on this one.

Establishing a meal/ingredient prepping session each week:  Simply not happening, and I’m not sure if it’s going to or is even necessary.  Trying to simplify meals has helped in terms of dinner being easier to prepare in the evening. (Scrambled eggs! Toast! Smoothies!)  But the truth is, unless it’s taking a few moments on a Sunday to chop a bunch of veggies to be able to snack on throughout the week, it just feels like making unnecessary work.  Because I work at home, I am able to take a few minutes during a break to mix a sauce or pull some ingredients out that I might need later in the day, so that things move along pretty quickly at dinnertime.  Prepping ahead saved some hair-pulling when I was home with a baby and then toddler for a few years, but is not really necessary at this stage of life. Basically what I need is not a huge meal prep, but enough done at dinnertime that I am not tempted to change my mind about what we’re having.

Do you make meal and snack decisions last minute, or does planning ahead work better for you?  If you’re a planner like me, what strategies work for you?  I love any and all tips regarding food and organization.

Some Fall Tweaks to Our Meal Planning Strategy

Snacky Supper
The snacking plate: my favorite kind of simple supper.

Happy fall! School has been back in session for about a week here, and I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of R being a first grader.  We’re slowly adjusting to the new schedule, although the whole homework routine hasn’t really started up proper as of yet.

Maybe because of the transition into more set routines and cooler weather, or September generally feeling like a fresh start kind of month, I’ve been giving some thought to our current meal rotation. (More on the specifics of that in a later post.) I would say I am generally happy with it, but I am noticing a few things I would like to work on that could make things even better.

My happy place is generally when things don’t necessarily get made as scheduled, but there are enough items floating around for a quick, nutritious meal.  For example, this past week there were leftovers from shrimp tacos and vegan Alfredo sauce in the fridge, and a pork roast in the slow cooker that became pulled pork for company.  Meals and snacks for days!

There are a few sticky spots lately:

  • The big one: When to prep and prepare ingredients. A meal preparation day never seems to stick for me.  It is not often what I want to do when the kiddo goes to bed, or on a Sunday afternoon. However, if I don’t spend some time in advance, I feel like I use more time than I would like preparing meals on a daily basis, whereas a weekly longer session could cut down on incidentals.  Working from home is fantastic for being able to take a few minutes to move things along and start dinner earlier.  But it also makes it easier for my day to get hijacked with chopping and prepping.
  • Neglecting to think about breakfast, lunch, and snacks for myself and my family. Still.  Getting better, but still.
  • Lack of serendipitous leftovers. Something I hadn’t really considered is that often I will plan a meal with purposeful leftovers, so that the next night is literally no work. Which is fantastic – but with snacks and lunches often being a question mark, having that extra food available for those times would make sense. Which would mean preparing a new meal more often throughout the week. Hmm…
  • Neglecting pantry ingredients. I am often not sure what’s actually in there, which brings us to…
  • Cluttered pantry and freezers. Enough said, really. They are never going to be perfect, but it frustrates me when I cannot find what I am looking for.

Over the next few weeks, I plan on trying out some tweaks:

The biggest one is probably letting go of any pretense that meal prep and planning can or should be a certain way.  We (and especially women) are exposed to many cultural narratives of what feeding our families is ‘supposed’ to look like. That is a whole other topic, but the main point is, life happens! Many times it just is what it is, and if we and our families are basically fed, that is a win.

(As a side note, I really enjoyed this article from The Kitchn last week on how meal dynamics change in different seasons of life.)

Taking leftovers into account more often and adjusting accordingly, AND plan for very simple meals.  For example, it’s okay for every Sunday to be scrambled eggs and toast and smoothies (this worked great for us this winter after family skating, which took us well into the evening). I tend to be good at throwing things like this together last minute, but I would like to plan for them more.

Toying around with a weekly ingredient prep session.  A few years back, I used a meal planning service that actually was fantastic, except it did not work long term as I discovered that constant variety was not really working great for us (who knew?).  But, one helpful habit I took away from it was preparing ingredients well in advance, including sauces, marinades, breadings, etc. that would survive for a day or two in the fridge or on the counter. This actually took very little time for the most part, and made a huge difference to getting a meal on the table.  I am going to think about how to approach this so I stick to it consistently.

Cleaning out and tidying up my pantry and freezer.  Yes, this is obvious, but I really avoid it.  However, the time it would take to make this happen and be able to find things properly will probably save me a lot of time in the long run.

I will report back!

What about you? Are there any meal planning hacks or kitchen tweaks that have made your life easier?  I would love to hear them.

Smoothie Hack: Freezing Bananas

Frozen Bananas

We love smoothies around here, and make them almost daily and sometimes twice daily.  Our favorites almost always involve bananas, and frozen bananas in particular make for a creamy base. Recently, since the addition of a fancy, high-powered blender to our household (yay!), I have been freezing bananas in batches to keep up with our demand for them.  I freeze them in chunks, and had been doing so in bowls and freezer bags; however, the problem was that they usually became one sticky chunk of banana, and breaking them apart was difficult.

It then occurred to me to freeze the pieces individually.  I am not sure why I didn’t think of it earlier, since it was something I did frequently when freezing cubes of R’s pureed fruits and veggies five (!) years or so ago.

Bananas on a sheet pan

To freeze: Simply spread the banana chunks on a baking sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.  Place in the freezer for 2-3 hours, or until they are frozen solid.  Once they are frozen to your liking, place them in a sealed freezer bag, or your container of choice, and they will be ready for whenever you need them.

It’s a small hack, but I love having a big batch of frozen bananas at the ready.  Happy smoothie making!

Making Me Happy: November 2016

November Reds

Here are a few things that are making me smile this month.

1. Discovering a new walking trail.

I love walking outdoors, especially where it is quiet and woodsy, and there are several awesome walking trails that I use regularly.  Recently though, I found a new one by chance that I had no idea existed! (Kind of shocking since we have lived in this area for eight years.) It was a lovely surprise, though, and I have been making up for lost time.

2. Gorgeous fall colors – still!

September and October are probably my two favorite months of the year, and we lucked out this year with mostly beautiful weather to get outside.  However, November is here and I am happy to say that although the leaves are swiftly disappearing from the trees, the weather is still seasonably crispy and there are beautiful reds, golds, and yellows to take in.  It is pretty cliche to go on about the weather this time of year, but with good reason.

3. A fun free printable.

I have been enjoying poking around Short and Sweets, which is where I found this pretty free printable.  I need this reminder constantly.  And it pretty much sums up my feelings on doing any kind of creative work.

Joy Thief

By the way, if you Google this quote, a number of great free images pop up.

4. Trick-or-treating with the kiddo.

Up until this year, the kiddo’s feelings toward Halloween would be best described as ‘meh.’ Like a lot of preschoolers, she just has not had much interest.  She was content to put on her costume and enjoy a few spoils from friends and family, but that was about it.  This year though, with a better understanding of the occasion and Kindergarten classmates, it was a different story. It was a lot of fun to watch her get decked out in her black cat mask and tail and be excited to visit the houses in our neighborhood.

5. This Rainbow Chicken Salad from Pinch of Yum.

Rainbow chicken salad

With some bread on the side, this delicious salad was our dinner twice last week.  Preparing the chicken and dressing ahead of time meant it came together really quickly, and the components are also great if you have kids who might like those things served separately (ahem).  Just delicious goodness. I will be making it in the future, repeatedly.

What is making you happy this month?

A Tale of Two Fishes

If you are more interested in eating delicious cake than creating it, then feel free to move on. However, if like me you are more of an amateur baker and could use a few extra tips, proceed!

kissing-fishes

A few weeks back, a friend of mine asked for some help with her wedding cake. I was little hesitant to say yes, as I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. However, it was a low-key cake for a lovely, low-key wedding, and it seemed like something I could actually do, so I agreed to help.

Our friends had the super-fun and playful idea of having two kissing fishes for their cake.  I worked off a template of a fish cake made from cupcakes and a smaller, divided 6-inch cake. (I love the concept of cupcake cakes; they are adorable, and you can just pull them apart! Plus, it’s a little like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.)

I love baking, but icing cakes properly has always been tricky for me.  Making them tasty is no problem, but more often than not they do not turn out exactly as I hope (largely due to the dreaded crumb lifting).  Usually this is no big deal, but presentation was obviously important in this case.  I was happy with the results, but there were definitely a few bumps along the way.

Here are a few things I took away from the process (some of them not for the first time!):

Practice ahead of time. Although the cake was a super-simple concept, I decided to make a test fish well ahead of time to see how things went.  I am glad I did, because it took me twice as long as I anticipated, and it turns out that crumb coating and icing a small cake with funny angles and corners is not as straightforward as it looks. Plus, no one in my household would be upset by the presence of extra cake!

test-fish

Batter dispensers are awesome. I stumbled across this handy little tool on clearance and decided to try it out.  I am so glad I did! I had to make a number of cupcakes and mini cupcakes and this sped up the process a lot.  Releasing the pressure on the piping bag immediately stops the flow of batter.  There is the extra step of adding the cake batter to the bag, but the ease of being able to squeeze just the right amount of batter into the pans made it worth it. This was especially helpful with the mini cupcakes where only a tiny amount was needed to fill the cups half way. (Note: The dispensers are inexpensive to begin with, so they are definitely worth trying out.)

batter-dispenser

Resist the urge to overfill cakes pans.  I have always struggled with this, and it’s another good reason to try a test run.  For the 6-inch cakes and all the cupcakes, the half-way mark was perfect. Anything more and you will often end up with a rounded, uneven top layer.

baked-cupcakes

Do not skip the crumb coat, no matter how tempting it is.  The crumb coat is a super-thin layer of icing that is applied to the cake so that the crumbs will adhere to it, helping them stay in place when the final layer is applied. This step feels somewhat frustrating, because it is not supposed to be pretty and it always feels to me like I need to keep picking at it. It is also time consuming, and requires some chilling to set the icing in preparation for the next layer.  But when the final layer goes on so much more smoothly, it is worth it.  Speaking of which…

All these finicky curves and angles need a good crumb coat.
All these finicky curves and angles need a good crumb coat.

Use more icing than you need. Really! When the crumb coat has chilled (I pop the cake in the freezer for about 30 minutes), applying far more icing than you think you need to the top of the cake allows the icing to run down the sides on its own.  This makes for much easier spreading, especially into finicky corners.  Usually, I try to apply it more sparingly which ends up pulling more on the cake, and is more likely to result in crumb lifting.  More icing also means that if you are using a buttercream, it should be easier to smooth it out.  I applied the abundant layer of icing and spread it out with a spatula, and then used a baker’s blade to gently take off the excess.  The blade worked great for smoothing certain areas, too.

final-orange-fish

Prepare icing ahead of time. I made my own buttercream icing (using shortening – ick, but holds up well at room temperature) and had to tint it in several colours.  Buttercream can be made well ahead of time and even frozen for up to three months.  It made life much easier to have the icing prepared and tinted well before the baking began.  Plus, when using colouring gels, the colour of the icing sometimes deepens over time.  So making and tinting at least a day or two in advance allows you to see if you will need to adjust your colouring or not. The icing may separate a little when made ahead, but easily mixes back together.

In addition to making it ahead, I made a couple of extra batches of white icing just in case!

burnt-orange-icing

A hot spatula is a good tool for quick fixes.  With larger cakes, in the past I have used parchment or wax paper and a large spatula to smooth out the icing once it has had time to crust .  This time, though, it was more difficult to do with the small surface area of the cakes as well as the finicky corners.  One tip that worked really well was to take a metal spatula, run it under or dip it in very hot water, then dry it quickly.  Applying the hot spatula gently to the icing allowed me to smooth over some rough patches.

This cake was definitely a bit out of my comfort zone, but it was a fun project to work on!  If you have any additional tips for making the baking process go more smoothly, I would love to hear them.

Some Encouragement for Hard Days

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Getting ready for a wedding this past weekend, a few old, familiar thoughts came up while I was figuring out what to wear.  Being someone who has struggled with body dissatisfaction in the past (to put it mildly), events like weddings sometimes stir up some old issues.  People tend to dress up and look their best, and there are lots of opportunities for comparison.

These days, I am pretty comfortable in the knowledge that no matter what I weigh, I am fine exactly the way I am. I try to make sure I have clothes that fit and that I am comfortable in, and hopefully that I love, for every occasion. It is very important to me that my daughter can learn to love and respect her body and reject the diet and scarcity narrative of our culture.  So I do my best to walk the talk.

However, since we are living smack dab in the middle of this culture that encourages us to continually shrink (often under the guise of optimal health), it can be hard to be comfortable taking up space. And I have the occasional bad day.

Frankly, this is aggravating, because when I have other things to do and life to live while I am lucky enough to have it, I would really prefer not to be worried about how large I look in a fun dress, and to not waste time comparing myself to others when I could just be enjoying their company.

As I was thinking about this today, I decided to sum up some of the main ways I fight back against these negative thought processes.

I do something physical that encourages body awareness and gentleness.  I love yoga for this reason.  It calms the body and mind, and it is hard to be angry with your body when you are taking such good care of it. Any kind of joyful movement or even deep breathing are great for this.

I remember the research.  Some truths:  Weight is generally linked with health in a much less straightforward way than we tend to believe. The size of your body is not indicative of how you live, what you eat, or what kind of person you are. Fat is not a moral failing.  For more on this, the Health at Every Size movement is a great place to start.  See below for a few extra resources!

I remember that body dissatisfaction is a very slippery slope.  I am a fairly average size and weight that I have maintained for years.  In years of yo-yo dieting in my teens and early twenties, I have been much larger and much smaller.  I know from experience that no matter how low the number on the scale, you will always feel like it could and should be lower.  If you happen to reach a goal weight, you will live in fear of it creeping back up. The work is never done.  And we do not need to be fixed.

I do something that I enjoy and am good at. I can write. I can spend time with my daughter. I can master a difficult yoga pose, organize large events, paint a picture, take nice photos, cook a delicious meal and craft two kissing fishes out of cupcakes (more on that later).  There is so much we are each capable of, and doing something I love reminds me there is much more to us than our sizes and shapes. Plus, it never hurts to get out of your own head for a bit.

Be kind to yourself.  There are not certain conditions that have to be met first.  You deserve it right now!

There are lots of great resources that deal with the science around weight and health and the social and cultural influences on both.  Here are two great books to start with that are thorough but very readable:

Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, PhD

The Diet Myth by Paul Campos (formerly The Obesity Myth, which is the edition I have)

And a recent favorite of mine:

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker. It is a well-researched manifesto of self-love and body acceptance.