‘Use What You Have’ Eating

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I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the ground – the sun is glowing and the sky is cloud-free, and other than a little wind blowing, it just added a sugar coating to a glorious morning.

We’re about 5 days into the spending freeze, and a good chunk of the grocery money is already used up.  I budgeted $450 this month just to see how that worked, which is about $100-$150 less than we usually spend.   That budget includes most of our meals – Eli works from home 100% of the time, and I do about 65% of the time.  We rarely eat out, although I tend to have to when I travel, which is reimbursed.  We pack the kids lunches 50% of the time, and breakfasts for all of us are home-based most of the time.  We try to eat healthily, and our meals include lots and lots of vegetables.

I spent $75 yesterday at Trader Joe’s on both food and wine (it’s a spending freeze, not a life of bleak deprivation).  Add to that what we’ve spent on things that arrive automatically and we should be ok, although this will be tighter than our usual.  All we really will need is lunch meat, milk, and fruits and vegetables and a few  staples.

Next week our Walden Local meat food order will arrive ($167), although because of the holiday and so many meals away from home, we still have a lot left from last month.  We have some Amazon Subscribe-and-Save items arriving as well ($132.66) that will come in handy, especially the 30 lbs of organic flour that arrives 2x a year.   And gets used, I might add.  At about $1.42/lb, it’s more expensive to buy organic flour by a fair bit, but knowing that I’m minimizing our pesticide consumption helps.  The next step is to get our flour locally, which will increase our costs but support a local, truly organic grower, but not yet. Add to that the food we’ve put up and purchased, and I think we’ll be in good shape, even though there’s a lot of January left.

We still have most of the sweet potatoes, a lot of regular potatoes, onions and 2 big butternut squash from our Thanksgiving weekend stock up.  We’re also completely buried in fresh eggs, so fritattas, deviled eggs, quiche and lots of other options can be both breakfast and dinner.  So long as we employ some creativity, we should eat well and healthily for the month.

Our biggest risk area for the budget is snacks – I plan to make some homemade granola bars next weekend (this recipe is great, even without the coconut, which is not my favorite), and there’s always cookies, popcorn, and homemade guacamole with some tortilla chips.  Plus I stashed some Nutella-and-Breadstick snack packs for when the kids are completely frustrated by the lack of appealing snacks later in the month.  It’s probably not a flawless plan, but it’s pretty solid.

Last night we finally used up the spaghetti squash that we came home in November with – I halved it, scooped the seeds and then baked it with olive oil, salt, pepper and a few cloves of garlic until it was soft.  Then I filled it with a mixture of cooked ground lamb seasoned with garlic, and then mixed in goat cheese and pesto, and I topped it with a little shredded cheese.  Spaghetti squash ‘boats’ stuffed with almost anything are a favorite of mine.     I had no idea that my husband had never experienced spaghetti squash when I bought it, but he was so impressed by both Mother Nature’s ingenuity and dinner generally that we’ll be adding it to the list of things we grow and buy in bulk this year.

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And on that topic, I’m thinking next weekend I might start some winter lettuce indoors to cut down on what I’m buying.  I don’t usually grow much in the winter, but it’s a pretty low-effort endeavor to grow stuff from scratch, especially in small quantities.

When you are trying to eat what you have, it’s the time to use cookbooks and food websites as a starting point, not in order to follow recipes precisely.  For example, find a recipe for stuffed spaghetti squash and then modify based on what you have rather than what the recipe says exactly.   Tonight for dinner I need both kid-friendly food and to start to tackle the red peppers that have been sitting around for a few days.  I pulled some beef bulgogi from the freezer, and that, along with a salad and some quick and easy popovers will cover down on dinner tonight and likely leave Eli some leftovers while I travel.  Those red peppers will be sliced up along with cucumbers for the kids, who consume both without question.

I have mushrooms  that need to get used up when I return as well, so I’m trying to decide whether to saute and freeze them now, or wait until I get back and turn them into something interesting, like a new variation of stuffed mushrooms, perhaps using more of the ground lamb that comes with our meat share.

Key here is to use cookbooks and web recipes for ideas.  I’m lucky enough to have a freezer and my pantry completely full, so my options are great.  But I’ve had times in my life where all I had was some flour and yeast, cheese and spaghetti sauce, and a few onions, and I made some really good homemade pizza with caramelized onions, which fed me until the next paycheck arrived.   I’ve used solid white tuna as a cheaper alternative to ground beef in pasta sauce, and it’s really good.  Surprisingly good.

Food writers, bloggers and chefs are always on the lookout for the newest and the freshest ingredients, and I love that – I have learned so much from so many about things I never thought I could cook at home, and flavor combinations I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own.  But the reality is that it isn’t how most of us truly eat – most people have budgets, food preferences, limited time to cook, kids who will try a very few new things.

But what we all have is the ability to be limitlessly creative in the kitchen – the worst that can happen is that what comes out isn’t that great, and the best that can happen is you pair flavors you like and come out with a new greatest hit.

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday Mindfulness

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

 

It’s 5 days until Christmas, and between work, life and holiday preparations, it’s a little chaotic around here.  With packages and holiday cards left to mail, and not yet even started on my wrapping, it’s easy to get lost in the list of to-dos. All that work on the Salsa Verde turned into gifts, with gorgeous tags made by my artist husband.  My spiced nuts are packaged up into gift bags and being delivered along with the salsa and cookies.

Modern life is so busy.   Not only are our houses supposed to be decorator-perfect but we’re always supposed to be doing something fun.  Creative.  Interesting.  Instagram-worthy.  It’s not enough to do enough – the pressure to do more and more is overpowering.  Yesterday after Connor’s first-grade concert, then it was class party.  We have Elves on our shelves, Advent calendars to fill, and even the kids at my daughter’s riding class were giving out gifts.  “I was supposed to do that?” I wondered, not for the first time, as I rushed out after to buy a last-minute gift for my daughter’s teacher.  

No wonder we’re all so tired.

Which means that this is the moment for some mindfulness.

We’ll do more baking this weekend, but it’s also going to be fun – Eli and Connor have an outing planned this weekend, while Kiera and I go into Boston with her close friend and the friend’s mom for a day of exploring.  We have a very special house guest coming to visit too – our former intern resident from last summer, H, is returning to us for a night.  We’ve missed her.

So it was time to remember that somehow, some way, the holidays always come together, and I know it will this time too. I don’t have to do everything perfectly, and if yet again I don’t get to making homemade truffles, it’s ok.  There’s always next year.  I have to remember that teaching my kids that holidays are a time of rushing and stress is not the message I want to send.

Instead, I want to send the message that yes, we put effort into things that make us proud to give, but what’s really important is what we give to one another.  There will be busy nights between now and Christmas, but ultimately it’s more important that Connor gets to wrap the gifts we’re sending to Auntie Liz and Uncle Joe over general perfection.  If dinner is ham and cheese and Cheerios occasionally, it’s hardly the end of the world.  If the Christmas cards arrive at some houses on the 26th, we’re not exactly committing a cardinal sin.

So this morning, after making sure the bunnies had food and water and were making it through the cold, I tossed in some laundry, put on the coffee and just..sat.  Looking at our tree.  Collecting my thoughts.

Breathing.

It’s ok to put it down sometimes.  No, it’s more than ok.  It’s necessary.  If your friends come over and there’s clutter in the corner, whatever.  Did you feed them?  Do they love you?  Is their presence more important than whether you did everything perfectly?

Today, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to go get my hair done, I’m going to work, I’m going to make something easy for dinner, and we’re going to sit and watch a movie.  Maybe we’ll make some sugar cookies, maybe not.

We are here, warm and safe, surrounded by love.  We have enough, and some left over to give to those less fortunate than us.  Are the tree lights perfectly spaced?  No.  Am I going to get everything done?  Nope.

Will I do the things that really count?  Yes.  Yes I will.  So will Eli, as he always does.  This year, our first year as a family, I don’t just want to celebrate what we’ve done, but also who we are.  We’ve accomplished a lot, sure.  But none of it matters if we’re harried and snapping at one another.

So sit.  Breathe.  Look at the lights.

Remember you do enough.  You’ve bought enough, baked enough, cared enough.

You are enough.

 

 

Springtime in Winter

Sithean March 2019

It’s been bloody cold lately, with snow coming at regular intervals.  Winter, as it always does at this time of year, is hanging on, not quite ready to let go.  There’s signs of hope though – forecasts for 50ish degrees later this week, the local Co-Op is advertising mulch rather than shovels, and tomorrow marks the beginning of seed-starting.  I rearranged the living room to accommodate the potting bench, and as soon as it stops sleeting we will bring it in.  The clocks changed last night, which is disorienting, but another sign that soon the white stuff will dissipate, and the earth will be closer to the sun.

It was icky today, with the weather changing from snow to sleet to rain and then cycling back through all three at intervals, so I postponed my long run for 2 days to avoid slipping on ice, and instead Eli and I went for a long walk.  A long wet walk, but a good one.  I’ve been thinking about goals a lot lately.  Setting them, working towards them, adjusting them.

Every year on New Year’s Day, we list out goals for 2019.  This is an all-in family endeavor and this year’s list included ‘finishing the garden’, ‘a new coop’, and ‘make new memories for the 4 of us’ among other things.  We’ve made steady progress on some, others not yet started, but as we head towards 1/4 of the year complete, I think we’re doing all right.  There is, of course, limitless things still to do, on our goals list or just on the to-do list.  So I did a lot of them, and then, after our walk and more things, I perched myself on the couch to watch the birds, write a little, and allow myself to ignore the endless things to clean, sort, iron and organize for a bit.  The kids are with Dad tonight, so the house is quiet.  Eli and I are going to make another batch of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen tonight, because this weather calls for comfort food for a little longer.

The big news here is the imminent arrival of 27 baby chicks – 26 girls and 1 rooster –  from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a combination of beautiful varieties, such as the Pheonix chicken and the Crevacoeurs.  I have wanted to place an order with them for as long as I have had chickens, or longer.  We got some good layers, but we also got chickens for their looks and cool factor.

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But the real news is the impending arrival of our new chicken coop.  After years of free range co-chickening with the neighbors,  and losing them all to the large variety of predators that abound here, we decided that we needed to provide better protection, and invested in a coop with an enclosed run, complete with wire underneath the run, predator-proof latches on the nesting boxes, insulation for winter, solar lighting and automatic chicken door, and last but not least, epoxy floors, nesting boxes, and removable trays for easy cleaning.  This is, to be honest, the Tesla of chicken coops, and if I have to make a plug for a vendor, I’ll do it for this one – Lancaster Chicken Coops was helpful, friendly and some of the best customer service I’ve ever had.  They even offered to bundle delivery with other area customers to make it cheaper.  The coop isn’t even here yet and I’m already in love.

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It’s dark and cold tonight, but spring is coming, and with it the tiny peeps of baby chicks to our little farmlet.

Journey’s End

In Florida, where I lived for a few years, most of the houses are in communities, gated or otherwise.  One, in West Palm Beach, was named ‘Journey’s End’.  Whether their target audience was simply the elder end of the snowbird set, or they helped people speed the path to their maker in order to ensure consistently available housing inventory was unclear to me, but I could never go by it without a giggle.

When I moved to Sithean, I had some goals set in my head.  At the top of the list, though, was ‘Never move again’.  After 5 moves in just over 2.5 years and some serious life transitions, the kids and I needed stability and predictability above all.  While a little updating couldn’t hurt, and it was definitely in need of basic maintenance, the house has stood for 168 years, and it will almost certainly outlast me.

Most financial advice around housing presupposes that you will, at some point, move, and therefore things like market value, financial return, and renovations with an eye towards selling are 99% of the commentary.  But when you buy a house to live in for 40+ years, it changes your perspective.  All of a sudden, the things ‘the market’ might prefer don’t really matter.  That isn’t to say that one should jettison good taste, but honestly, if you like something and want to do it, ‘what will the next owner think’ isn’t an issue.  When there is a next owner, I fully intend to have become compost for my peonies.

Hopefully not very soon.

To pay off the mortgage early or not is a debate in finance circles as old as time.  It’s true you may be able to grow that money faster in stocks, which is what most financial planners would say.  Most of the frugality-focused financial folks, on the other hand, loathe debt and recommend reducing housing costs by paying off the mortgage early.

I see both points of view, but it’s my take that there are those of us who are comfortable with mortgage debt, and there are those of us for whom outsized interest payments and owing someone the roof over our heads makes our skin crawl, and you should behave according to which type of person you are.  I am, without a doubt, the latter.

I hate debt, but my decision to work towards being mortgage free also has more specific reasons.  My oldest goes to college in 9 years, and my younger child will follow her a few years later.  I want to be able to help them, and without a mortgage payment, that should be comfortably possible.  I may not have it knocked off for my daughter’s turn, but by the time my son launches, I intend to have the house owned by me, outright.  This was number 2 on my goal list when I moved here.

Today I have no idea how that happens.

Ok, I do.  You toss money at it until it’s gone.  For a time when you take on a mortgage, you pay more interest than principal.  As the mortgage matures, that situation reverses, and you pay more principal than interest.  The quicker you reduce your unpaid principal balance, the less interest you pay, and the faster you pay your house off.

But logistically, today, my plan isn’t feasible based on the calculators I have run.  I’m not even a little worried about that.  I mean, in the dark of night when I wonder how it’s all going to work out, sure.  But generally, nope, not concerned.   What I have learned over the years is that calculators are one thing.  Deciding you are going to do a thing and then working towards it is quite another.  While ephemeral determination is not something you can take to the bank, making a plan and figuring out how to get there as you go along is absolutely critical to getting what you want.

A critical rule of goal-setting – first, decide what you want to do.  Then figure out how to do it, adapting as you go.  For long-haul goals, you have time to experiment.  For this particular goal I have 1 and 3 year plans that involve all ‘found money’,  unexpected windfalls, and a percentage of income going towards it.  Once I get through the next 36 months, I should have a good sense of how much I need to modify my goals to meet my target.  Or modify my target if I must.

Most critical though, is to listen to your gut.  My gut tells me that I am at my best when setting my sights on a few big goals, with some smaller ones along the way.  I’m focused and determined, and more often than not I get where I need to be, even if the route takes longer than I had hoped.

Should you pay off your mortgage?  Only you can answer that – no one else has to live your life, not your financial planner, not the money advice columnists, no one but you.  Your inner voice should guide you on the big things, and this is no exception.  But if you do decide to, don’t worry so much if the numbers aren’t clear when you get started.

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

― Joseph Campbell

Sithean in flower