Saturday, August 03, 2013

Craziness in the Kitchen (aka Once-a-Month Cooking)

My life is rather crazy these days. Despite the fact that I have not held a fulltime, for pay job in many years, my hands are in many pots, and there are many things for which I am responsible.  Joel is a fulltime pastor at Oconee Presbyterian Church, we have three teenage boys--Adam is a sophomore at Presbyterian College, and Daniel and Michael are in 11th and 9th grades respectively at North Oconee High School.  I am also the primary point person for my Dad's care.  He lives in a nearby assisted living, so that's not as time-consuming as it may sound, but I am responsible for his medical care and financial affairs, and go visit with him or take him for a meal two or three times each week.   I am an ordained Presbyterian pastor, but my current ministry is math teaching and tutoring. I taught middle and high school math for a few years prior to the boys' arrival, and have tutored for the past twenty-five years.  I currently have both traditional and homeschooled students, and see about twelve to fifteen each week during the school year. I also dabble in pottery, and may one day get an Etsy site up and running.  For now, I sell mugs at Jittery Joe's in Watkinsvlle, and to friends and family here and there by word-of-mouth.  

It sounds like a lot, and some days it feels like a lot.  But mostly I feel blessed to be able to do so many things that I love.

My first venture into once-a-month cooking was when we were in seminary in 2003 or 2004.  We were both in school at the time, and the boys were 5, 7, and 9, or thereabouts.  I was feeling very anxious about our upcoming semester and our tight budget of both time and finances.  I didn't want our health to suffer, and knew we didn't have the money to eat out very often.  So at the end of the summer, once the boys had gone back to school but our classes had not yet started, I gave it a try.  I got the cookbook from my friend Steve Kopp, husband of fellow student Karen Jolly, and began to flip through the pages.  

My first thought was that there were many of the recipes the boys would NOT eat.  They were not overly picky eaters, but at the time they were not fond of anything with more than two food items combined.  So casseroles were out, with the exception of a very few.  And there were nights when I knew I would not need a ready-made meal.  We did wonderful cookouts on the playground each Friday night, we often had church suppers on Wednesday nights, and did occasionally go out to eat when time and money allowed.  So I flipped through the book and found ten or twelve recipes that looked like they would be winners, and set to work.

My kitchen was a tiny galley-style kitchen, but I managed to get a few meals put away. I loved the ability to pull something out of the freezer in the morning, and have a good meal that night.  For me, it's been more like once-every-six-months cooking because 15-20 meals will typically last two or three months.

So I've done this now several times over the past eight years, usually in late August when I know the back-to-school crazy train is about to start.  Then I'll do it again in the early months of winter, when there's little else to do, usually in early- to mid-January.  I've done it enough times that it's no longer daunting, and I have the preferred recipes down pat so that a lot of them are automatic for me.

As for exactly how it all gets done, it's something you'll have to figure out on your own once you decide what dishes to make.  I will say that I highly recommend you doing a mixture of chicken and beef (if you eat both) because if you don't, you'll get really tired of chicken pretty quickly. Trust me.

This is my freezer before. Notice our staple "go-to" meal of frozen pizzas.
I stock up on the good brands (Freschetta and DiGiorno) whenver they are less than $5.00 at the grocery story.  

The basic process is this:

  • Find your recipes and make a master grocery list of how much meat, produce, freezer bags / containers, etc. you need.  (Make sure you have plenty of heavy duty foil as well as a Sharpie marker on hand.)  
  • Two days before prep day, do all of your shopping. 
  • The day before prep day, do all of your meat cooking.  It takes a long time to brown 12# of ground beef and cook 10# of chicken. While the meat is cooking, you can do all your chopping, dicing, spice gathering, etc.  
  • Then on prep day, it's basically just a massive assembly of recipes--measuring spices, opening cans, blending, and stirring.  

Typically, I dice 6 or 7 onions and 3 or 4 peppers for the recipes I use.  

Browning the ground beef takes quite a while, so plan for that!
And borrow a large pot or skillet if you can to make it go faster.  

So here are just a few random tips, in no certain order.  Except #1 is most important  :-)

1.  Make sure you have a bottle of your favorite beverage on hand on prep day.  You will want it when you put your last meal in the freezer at the end of the day.  For me, it's a white wine in August, and a good red wine in January.

2.  You cannot easily do this with small children in the house, especially the first time.  Farm them out for at least five hours on prep day. Or have someone come over to entertain them while you work.  Or do it on a day when your spouse or partner can be responsible for parenting.

3.  Make sure your dishwasher is empty when you start.  Run it frequently, even if it's not full, or use it to place dishes to drain / out of the way.

4.  A deep freeze / chest freezer is a must for more than 6 to 8 meals.  It's worth the investment, trust me.  And a food processor is highly recommended.  Borrow one if you don't have one.  I will never not have either of those items again.

5.  Start simple.  Do 6 or 8 meals to start, just to get a feel for it.  Maybe 3 or 4 chicken and 3 or 4 beef.

6.  Clean as you go, but don't stress over how messy the kitchen is.  This is a hard one for me, but it's just not worth the anxiety.  Know that it will be clean before you go to bed, and if you are too tired, ask your significant other to clean it for you, or have a friend come clean it for you in exchange for his or her pick of a meal from the batch.

This was taken about 2 hours into an 8-hour day. 
7.  Either plan for one of your meals to be dinner on prep night, or better yet, plan to go out that night--if going out is not too stressful to you because of young children.  I typically will have the tetrazzini for dinner on prep night.

8.  Check the portions for each recipe, and split them if the numbers work better for your family.  Many of the casseroles (lasagna and meatball sub casserole) feed 12, but could easily be split into 3 smaller casseroles for 4 each.  The first couple of times I did this, we had a lot of leftovers each time, and we are just not a leftover-eating family--unless Adam is home from college, then he eats ALL leftovers readily and eagerly.  :-)

9.  Go ahead and make sure you have ALL ingredients for the meal on hand, even though the noodles may not be cooked until the night you eat that particular meal.  A very few require additional ingredients just prior to cooking, and it's frustrating to have something ready to cook and realize that you used that can of cream of mushroom soup for something else, gave those egg noodles to the food pantry, or forgot that you didn't have buns.  For the record, grated cheese freezes very well.

10.  Many recipes call for the old, red-label Campbell's soup.  These are not the healthiest soups, sometimes high in sodium and other nastiness.  Here is a link for homemade cream of (anything) soup if you are really feeling adventurous.  I haven't yet tried it, though.

11  These recipes are not lowfat.  My guys don't really have to worry about that, but I do, so usually I will have a small portion of the entree, and eat more salad or fresh veggies.

12.  Prior to shopping / prepping days, look over the recipes and make sure you have a general feel for the flow of things.  You will definitely want to multi-task, and the more you can do at once, the less time it will take you. I typically have 2 or 3 stations in the kitchen, with one recipe in process at each station, and I have the printed recipe right there at the station so I don't forget what I'm doing!  It might even help to re-do the recipes in a more "step-by-step" visual format rather than paragraph style.

That's all I can think of to share about this.  This is one of those things where DOING IT the first time is really hard, but after that, it's much less daunting.  It's funny to me how folks talk about all the organization or energy or whatever I have when I mention that I do this, but the truth is that I DO IT because I'm not very organized about meals on a day-to-day basis, and don't have the energy at 4:00pm to do anything about it, especially now that my primary work (tutoring) is done between 4:00 and 8:00 each day.  Massive-Meal-Prep gives me an out on those 30 days when I simply cannot decide what to have for dinner, or don't have time to put anything together because my day has been one, big interruption.  

And this is my freezer after--33 entrees, ready to be pulled out to thaw in the morning,
and cooked or warmed for dinner that night!  
If you haven't gotten the recipes from me yet, give me a tap and I will make sure you have access to the ones I use.  But I would suggest that you just browse for some online to see what strikes your fancy.  Every family is different, and now that our boys are older, the meals we like are not as toddler-friendly as they once were.

If you've been thinking about doing this, now is a great time to start.  Go for it!  And if you do try it, I'd love to hear about your first experience.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Thoughts on Food and Me So Far

Mindful Eating Wordie
Although this is the second time I've done a detox / cleanse, I've had more time to actually think about it this time around. I remember during last year's cleanse being acutely aware of how habitual it was for me to snack while I was prepping food. A nibble of raw carrots here, a bit of apple slices there. That wasn't a problem when I was only cooking for myself, but when I thought about it as a habit, and realized that in my "normal" life, the nibble of carrots was a spoonful of peanut butter, and the bit of apple was the last bit of mac and cheese from someone else's plate, I became more aware of the unhealthiness of that habit. I vowed to work on that, and have been much better about it in the past year.   

In line with that, a part of the process involves being very intentional about what, when, and how you eat. This is very similar to the Buddhist notion of mindfulness. I have to admit that I am still not very good at this. I have a hard time "just eating," especially when I am by myself. I want to read something, or catch up on Words with Friends, or check Facebook. When I sit down to eat a meal alone, it's not just the food and me. But I'm working on it.  I think it would be easier for me to be in relationship with my food when I sit down to eat if I had not been the one to spend the hour or so preparing it. By the time I sit down to a meal that I have cooked, I am well aware of my hunger, and have been savoring the aromas for some time. I feel very connected to the food, and am aware of its textures and colors. I do pay particular attention to the "presentation" of food, and took great care with tonight's meal to use a green plate (since there was little green in the meal), and to carefully arrange the fish and the vegetables to look most appealing, even placing a thinly sliced lemon atop the salmon (which the boys promptly threw away--definitely got some work to do there about mindful eating for sure...!) But in general, by the time I sit down to eat a meal that I have prepared, I'm sick of the food itself and just want to eat because I'm "starving."

But it's more than just meals. What I've realized quite resoundingly in the past five days is that much of what I enjoy doing includes, even revolves around, eating or drinking. Spending time with a friend is usually done over a meal or coffee. A night out with Joel usually includes a meal and / or dessert and wine or beer. Spending time with the boys typically means we'll go for frozen yogurt or go to a movie, which means popcorn and soda. And even driving in the car for a few hours means a stop for coffee or a latte. Just tonight, I found myself really wanting to have a glass of wine while I spent a few hours cleaning up my studio. And oddly enough, I couldn't really get jazzed about cleaning up with a warm glass of lemon water or even a nice cup of hot tea. It's just not the same for me. Yet. 

Food and / or beverages are like the seasoning for all that I do. They enhance my both my tasks and my relationships in the same way that seasonings enhance a meal. And just like the though of eating a plain baked potato is not very enticing, the thought of going about my life without my "seasoning" seems pretty ho-hum. These past few days, I've found myself unable to get motivated to do anything since the food / drink component is no longer there. When I sit down at my desk, I want a cup of coffee by my side. When I run a few errands that I've procrastinated, I want to reward myself with a trip to Jittery Joe's or a run through Zaxby's. When I am working in my studio, I want coffee by day, and beer or wine by night. When I sit down in the afternoon to tutor, I want a hot chai tea by my side, spiced up with brown sugar and a bit of cream. And when I want to really indulge myself, I'll make some of my friend Whitney's Snickerdoodles (recipe here) and enjoy them with a cup of tea or coffee.  The thought of doing any of these things MINUS the food or drink component just does not sound as appealing, and as a result, my motivation has plummeted.  

I'm so grateful that we were never allowed to watch TV
while we ate a meal when I was growing up.
It's bound to be a hard habit to break! 
One glimmer of hope in all of this is that I don't typically eat when I watch TV, although everyone else in my house does. While they nosh on chips and salsa, cereal, or orange slices, I will catch up on Words with Friends, knit, or sleep, depending on what we're watching. But (almost ;-) all the other pleasure of life involve eating or drinking. So what is the solution? Now that I have realized this, where do I go from here? How to I disentangle the things that I do from the things that I consume by eating or drinking? How do I re-learn how to find satisfaction in date nights, family time, creative time, and productivity for its own sake, without their being tied somehow to food and drink? Or is it okay to tie them to food and drink, and just work towards healthier, more nutritious options? Somehow, though, the thought of substituting a cup of coffee for a cup of herbal tea, or a nice glass of red wine with a glass of warm lemon water just doesn't cut it. 

Thankfully, I've never had a weight problem. I can only imagine how hard this would be if I were seriously in need of losing significant weight to regain my health. It certainly gives me a greater sense of understanding for those who struggle with weight issues. And thankfully, I've never suffered from an eating disorder either. I suspect that in may ways, it is the complete reverse of my food issue, with body image and control issues thrown in as well. But both bring to mind the complex relationship that we have with eating and living, and how the two intertwine. We have to eat to live, but we also need to learn how to live without eating. As I continue on this journey of intentional, mindful consumption, this is what I'll be working on. If you have any tidbits or advice to share, I would be happy to hear them!  

How The Detox Thing All Started

So I'm far from a regular blogger--more like a quarterly blogger, I guess. It's not that things don't happen that make me think, "I should write about that sometime." It's just that "sometime" never seems to happen. However, as many do at the year's beginning, I've been giving lots of thought to life, goals, habits, etc., and in light of the second annual "detox" that I'm doing, I wanted to write down some thoughts and feelings about it. One, I thought it would be helpful in the way of some type of explanation for those who have asked me, "WHY are you doing that? It sounds awful!" And two, I want to be able to remember the thoughts I'm having when I am NOT in detox mode so that it might help me maintain better eating habits. 

This all started last year with my intern Drew. He and his wife Ellen did the Whole Living Cleanse (aka Martha Stewart) in January, and every time Drew & I were in the car together, he would give me the update. And in the midst of it, I did notice that he looked healthier. He seemed "lighter," and said he definitely felt more energetic. And he was really enjoying the food he did get to eat in new ways. It seemed to me similar to a fast in many ways, but not nearly as difficult. This time last year, I was really in need of some centering--some internal focus and spiritual discipline. Unbeknownst to my friends at the time, Joel & I were just before making a big change. He would be resigning his call at Rehoboth and accepting a call to serve as pastor of Oconee Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, and I would be resigning from my ministry positions at Oglethorpe Presbyterian and Emory University. I saw the cleanse partly as a distraction from the stress of secret-keeping, and partly as a healthy way to rise above the eating and drinking that sometimes accompanies stress and change for me. So I made the commitment to do it myself, carefully choosing a 3-week period before the birthday months set in, as Joel's is February 20th and mine is March 4th. 

Last year, after perusing the recipes from the website, I realized that I would not be able to manage two part-time jobs AND the rigid shopping and cooking requirements of the cleanse, so I told Joel and the boys that they were on their own for two weeks. I trekked to the Dekalb Farmers Market and stocked up, learning for the first time what parsnips were, what leeks looked like, and where to find white miso. I dove in with full commitment, and was completely ready for a rough few days at first. But they didn't really come. The first day, I noticed I was slightly lethargic, but there was no caffeine headache, which truly surprised me. I missed the taste / flavor of coffee so badly, though! After a brief encounter with something called Teecino (coffee flavored tea--and yes, it's as bad as it sounds at first...), I gave in and went back to decaf coffee in the mornings, with a smidge of sugar and a drop of milk. No worse for the wear. After about three days, I noticed I did actually feel much better. My energy had returned, and didn't wax and wane as it did when I was eating sugar and drinking real coffee and sodas. I made it through the 3-week regimen, even managing to eat out (at Wahoo) and stay on track for Valentine's Day. I did get comments on a few pounds lost, but the best part was the energy that I had and the sense of accomplishment that I felt.  I maintained a certain level of "food awareness" for a few months after that, but clearly by the fall, I had fallen out of health eating's grace. 

I decided the week after Christmas that I was going to follow the regimen again because I knew I had developed some really bad habits post-move, and had also put on a few unwanted holiday pounds. My caffeine intake had definitely increased, as had my fast-food eating. And to be honest, this time around has been totally different, and a bit harder. I no longer have the distractions of two jobs to keep me up and moving, or to keep me from thinking about food or from eating when I'm not really hungry. And also, I don't have the "two-job" excuse not to cook for Joel & the boys. So I'm prepping my own foods as well as doing light cooking for the guys. I'm not tempted by the foods so much as I am tired of all the time in the kitchen. They don't expect me to cook, and would be fine on their own, but I know they eat healthier when I cook for them. It's just how we've rolled for all these years. Anyway, it's finally feeling more like a temporary way of life than sheer torture, so that's good. I thought the four-day headache and lethargy was totally caffeine withdrawal. I took four naps on Monday. Yes, four. I had plenty to do, but no hard deadlines or appointments, so I was easy on myself that first day. But on day four, I thought that perhaps the headache wasn't due to caffeine withdrawal, but dehydration. True enough, downing eight ounces of water before I eat anything has left me headache free.  Yay!  

I'm only on day 5 of supposedly 18 days, and I may not complete my original commitment of 18 days. But I do know that I have already benefitted from the hardest stage of the process, the "detox" week, and that was really what I was seeking. I will continue with week 2 eating (which adds fish and beans to the recipe options) for at least five days, then move into week 3 eating, which adds in some healthy carbs like brown rice and "hearty grains," for at least five days. These weeks are easier because I can include the guys in some of the recipes, definitely making meal prep easier for me. I know that as I move into the better-tasting foods, I'll have to focus on portion control, which has always been my nemesis. Some of the foods just taste so good after having so little variety for a few days! Also, I keep trail mix (a week 1 food) handy for when I get hungry in between meals. It's amazing what just 1/4 cup of almonds, walnuts, dried cranberries and raisins can do to hunger. 

Because I've not been as busy with life this time around as I was last year, I've had a lot more time to think about the emotional part of the process this week. In the next post, I'll write about some of the things I've learned about my eating habits and the role food and beverages play in my overall life.