Weekend Cooking: My Menu System

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A few weeks ago Trish posted about her meal planning woes and Heather recently posted her weekly meal plan. I thought I’d share my meal plan system I’ve been using since September with only minor tweaking.

First let me say that I’ve tried every sort of trick to get healthy meals on the table, on the cheap, using foods we love, for minimal costs for AGES. I’ve tried freezer meals, but the upfront time and cost and the storage I need makes this impractical (small apartment fridge, yo). I’ve tried settling in with my cookbooks, grocery ads, and coupons and doing weekly meals, but the time suck was amazing. I would paw through cookbooks, copy ingredients, and clip coupons and it took about 2.5 to 3 hours A WEEK to do things this way. Ugh.

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Luckily, my mom is brilliant. She’s used an index card system for ages and it inspired me to create my own system.

The Set-Up:

  1. First, I bought some index cards, a plastic card box, and some dividers.
  2. Next I spent a weekend or so making ingredient cards. I took an index card and wrote the title of the recipe, the page number and cookbook, and then simply listed ingredients NOT directions. For recipes not in cookbooks I wrote “file” in the upper right-hand corner and this refers to my recipe notebook where I keep recipes I’ve collected over the years. This part was a bit time intensive, but can easily be done while watching TV.
  3. I divided my cards into categories 1) casseroles and bakes, 2) pasta, 3) quinoa/rice/grains, 4) tofu/beans, 5) veggie sides, 6) curries/chilis/stews, and 7) soups. I place the cards behind the corresponding divider in alphabetical order.
  4. I drafted a “template” for my meal plan on an index card and placed it in the front of the box.

wpid-cam01809.jpgWeekly Meal Planning:

Once a week I make my meal plan. I take out a card that correspond with the daily meal themes for the next week — for example Tuesday is pasta day — and put it in a little stack. I really only need four recipes for the week. Since all the ingredients are listed on the card I can look for a recipe feature sweet potatoes for when my Dad blesses us with seven pounds of sweet potatoes from his garden (happened this week). If I know something is on sale I can look for that as well. When I have my four recipes selected I make a grocery list of the items I need that I don’t have on hand.

Easy Meals:

I pick four recipes to make for the week because our weekends are kind of crazy. We get home an hour later on Friday, I work on Saturday, and on Sunday we have our small group meeting for church and that is usually a potluck. I know that I will probably not be able to cook those days. On Saturday nights we’ve been putting the kids to bed and then ordering takeout or pizza and watching a movie for a “home” date. Saturday evenings Sam usually makes spaghetti or frozen pizza for the kids while I’m at work. I have a list — in my head — of easy meals that we can make on Friday – Sunday nights:

  1. leftovers
  2. breakfast for dinner (eggs and toast or pancakes)
  3. frozen veggie burgers and tater tots (or soy dogs)
  4. tomato soup and grilled cheese
  5. soft tacos with black beans and veggies
  6. frozen pizza or pizza rolls
  7. spaghetti
  8. “chikn” (fake chicken) nuggets and mac’n’cheese

Honestly I figure if the kids are eating four healthy, mostly vegan meals a week I am winning. The other three days I don’t worry too much about it. I decide what easy meals I will make based on what’s on sale at the grocery store. For example, last week Campbell’s Tomato soup was on sale at Kroger 10 for $10. I have plenty of soup so we will certainly be having grilled cheese and soup sometime next week.

Grocery List:

After writing down ingredients from the cards and checking the sale papers for easy meal items, I do a quick check for other needed items. I check the fridge for yogurt, milk, and condiments. I check our pantry area for things like coffee, baking items, granola bars, oatmeal, etc…. Then I check for non-food items like cat litter, laundry detergent, and diapers. Lastly, I check my digital coupons on my Kroger app and take a peek at my coupon box for any coupons I can use.

Last Step:

My last step is to hop onto Nature’s Garden Express to create my weekly produce box. I typically plan meals on Thursday and do my box order and my grocery shopping on Friday. The box is created on Friday and delivered on Tuesday. I check Nature’s Garden Express and make exchanges for anything I need. The box is pre-determined, but I can make five exchanges so I may swap out the kale for the butternut squash I need for a recipe. I mark the produce for Tuesday night – Thursday night recipes that I’m able to get via Nature’s Garden Express off of my shopping list.

Shopping Day:

I shop and (because I’m not trying to shop for a crazed, mish-mash of meals) I end up buying less and that gives me more money to stock up on Manager’s Specials, clearance items, and really good sales on pantry staples.

How long does this take?

From the minute I open the card box up to the creation of the grocery list takes fifteen to thirty minutes. That includes picking my recipes, writing my plan for the week, making a grocery list, going through the shopping ad, checking my digital coupons, and checking for fridge, pantry, and non-food items needed. BAM!

Do I like it?

Hell to the yes! If I decide to try a new recipe a few times a month it is so easy to add it to my cooking repertoire. Let me know how you plan your meals; do you have something that works for you?

Photo Friday: Charity Book Sale

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Today I met up with my good friend, Melissa, for coffee, Thai food, and book shopping.

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I restrained myself and only filled one box.

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There were gobs of books and people.

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I found a vintage Aquaman book for Sam.

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I hit the Barbara Pym jackpot! I was so afraid Melissa would mug me.

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Whoot! Historical fiction!

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A few must-haves…

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… and a groovy Wilkie Collins to round out my purchases.

Welcome to the Sausage Fest: A Review of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

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A few weeks ago the blogosphere was filled with posts bemoaning blog malaise. Folks were exhausted, bored, and frustrated with blogging. I made my peace with blogging several years ago, but I still struggle with self-doubt and feeling like I could always be doing more. I have so many ideas and very little time to write. Also, I need to be doing things to write about: reading, baking, crafting, going places. If I spend all my free time writing or blogging then I run out of material or resort to bored naval-gazing and no one wants that. How in heavens name do people find the time to create?

Enter Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. This book is comprised of brief entries about the daily and creative habits of famous writers, artists, dancers, scientists and inventors. Gleaned from biographies, letters, and diaries this book offers an inspiring look at how people make the time to create. Some have firm schedules (W.H. Auden), others superstitions habits (Truman Capote), and still others are decidedly weird (Thomas Wolfe liked to diddle himself before writing…ewww). I started tabbing the book when I noticed three recurring things with many of the subjects: waking early, daily exercise, and coffee. The green tabs are exercise, yellow is coffee, and pink/purple represent waking early. Blue tabs are just my favorite interesting quirks and facts.

wpid-wp-1412600249026.jpgI certainly give this book five stars for how interesting it is and the level of research it must have taken to assemble the over 150 different “daily rituals” into one volume.

HOWEVER…

This book absolutely pissed me off and I haven’t sworn at a book in quite a long time. This book is a freaking sausage fest. There are over 150 creators profiled in this book and only 26 women are represented. What. the. f*ck? There are also very few people of color or from non-American/European countries and nearly everyone in the book is well-off. Thanks for letting me know how hard it is to be a white, privileged, American man and I am so glad you found the time to create.

You will see loads of women on the pages of Daily Rituals. They’re fixing bowls of cornflakes, reading aloud to frustrated authors, editing shit drafts, typing entire novels written on index cards (hello, Mrs. Nabokov), tending children, or simply working to pay the bills. The interesting nature of the entries was marred by the exclusiveness of the artists and creators featured.

Mr. Currey could have saved this book in one of two ways:

  1. My least favorite way would be to talk about it. I just re-read the introduction and he states he, “…tried to provide examples of how a variety of brilliant and successful people have confronted many of the same challenges [finding time to create]“. A simple paragraph recognizing the book was skewed towards men would have gone a long way. He could have talked about class, gender, and race — even briefly — and detailed how it was easier to find privileged or male examples in diaries, letters, and biographies.
  2. The best remedy would have been for Mr. Currey to work a bit harder and find more women, people of color, and working class examples. The stuff is out there if only one would look. I would have especially liked some mothers featured. I know that everyone doesn’t chose to be a mother, but out of the women represented I think less than five mentioned children or household duties.

For inclusiveness I give this book one star meaning the book averages about three stars. In his introduction Currey hopes “that readers will find it [the book] encouraging rather than depressing”. Alas, I left this book depressed at the short-sightedness of the work and angry it was a catalog of the “struggles” wealthy, white men face. Boo, freaking, hoo.

Thursday Thoughts: On Weeding My Book Collection

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A little over a month ago I culled over 400 books from my home. That is about two-thirds of my collection. We were downsizing from a three bedroom, two bath house with a basement to an apartment. I would no longer have a study. I would no longer have built-in shelves in the living area. Instead I would have a little blip of wall in the dining room and a small shelf in my bedroom to fill. I needed to cut down on my books and needed to do it quickly.

First I cut two hundred.

Then I cut just over two hundred more.

If you count cookbooks and kids’ books, then I cleared out close to 450 titles.

I posted a picture on Instagram and immediately the comments came pouring in. “How can you cut Don Quixote!?” “You’re ditching Jane Austen?!” “No! That (insert historical title) is so good!”

Of course, I agreed with all the above statements. I was getting rid of some really good books.

Friends offered to store the books for me and, while the intentions were good, it made me uncomfortable. Do I really need to horde boxes of books in someone’s house for several years? No. Nothing I had was rare or had a high-cash value. Perhaps it is because I’ve worked in a library for ten years, but I don’t think holding onto the books for the sake of holding on to them is a good thing. The reason why I like to buy books is to have them readily available. You never know when you’ll want to read Wuthering Heights at three in the morning. And books are beautiful! Even though I didn’t read everything I owned, I loved gazing at so many rows of book spines and inhaling the wondrous papery smell. Packed up in a box they would just sit.

Then I started to think about my twelve-year old self growing a burgeoning collection of books. I received books for Christmas and birthdays, but we were a working class family and there was no money for extra books. I checked out my maximum allotment of books each week from the library, but books to own were scare. My mom had three large shelves of books, but I wanted my own. Lucky for me the public library had a huge library book sale once a year. I can remember filling up my paper bag with whatever titles looked good. In fact, that was how I first learned of Sylvia Plath. I found a well-worn copy of The Journals of Sylvia Plath at a library sale and I was hooked. I still have my first two library book sale purchases, two poetry books: English Romantic Poets and a blue book that is an old poetry textbook. From those books I breathed “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and “The Lady of Shalot” for a year. I was nine years old. Relatives gifted me boxes of books from yard sales and I always went to the book section of the thrift store first. My first job was at a book store and I used my first paycheck to buy Atlas Shrugged, Catcher in the Rye, and Slaughterhouse-5. I had books of my own because other people (and libraries) saw fit to rid themselves of excess books for very little money.

I also knew that I wanted to begin building a collection to keep on my shelves forever, Instead of a tattered, yellowed, falling-apart copy of The Woman in White, I wanted a Penguin Clothbound. I ditched my mish-mash of Austen because she is a favorite; I long to collect set of beautiful, deckle-edged, French-flapped Austen beauties. Obviously I cannot run out and purchase them all right now, but when I decide to re-read Persuasion I could probably swing the $15 to $20 to get the copy I want (or find a used copy for less). Honestly, I also missed the hunt. My full to bursting shelves didn’t allow for other book sales and pouring through thrift store shelves. Now I have a little room, a bit of space, and I can hunt for titles again.

I sold about a quarter of my books at a yard sale. The rest I gave away. A few were packaged and sent to friends throughout the country. Many were picked up by college work-study students at the library. Most went to the public library for their annual book sale. I consider it a way of “paying it forward” by passing on books I’m not using.

Weeding books can be liberating, but buying books is ecstasy. I’ve been selling you all on letting books g,o but guess who has two thumbs and is going to a massive charity sale next Friday? Yup. That would be me. I have a little bit of room, some stashed change, and a large and empty tote bag. And so it begins… again….

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Estella Society Read-along: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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I read The Haunting of Hill House for the first time directly after college. I remember enjoying the book, but I didn’t recall many of the details. I knew I wanted to revisit this Shirley Jackson classic, but I’ve been putting it off for quite a while to wait for the “right time”. I am so glad Heather suggested we read this book for The Estella Society, because I got so much more out of my rereading. Since several people are posting about this book today I will skip a giant rehash of the plot and provide the GoodReads blurb:

“First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.”

Now at this point I’d like to boot out everyone who has NOT read The Haunting of Hill House. SCRAM. We’re about to play literary twinsie and if you haven’t read the book you won’t get the connection and it will spoil your read.
Go on, go READ THE BOOK.
Now then *picks up coffee cup* let’s chat book twins.
The Haunting of Hill House and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar could be twins (maybe not identical twins, but definitely fraternal). If you haven’t read The Bell Jar then, 1) you are missing out and 2) this conversation will hopefully entice those of you who enjoyed Hill House to read Plath’s novel.
I am going to be very brief and skim the surface with this analysis because when Sam is done with school I am applying for graduate school and this idea is in my stash of possible thesis/graduate paper topics (yes, I am a dork). I also feel like I should read The Bell Jar again along with another read of The Haunting of Hill House to fully solidify my ideas. For now I’m just going to create a list of similarities for your pontification.

  • Hill House and The Bell Jar were written during the same time period. Hill House was published in 1959 and The Bell Jar was published in 1963.
  • Both novels concern young, unmarried women. Eleanor (Hill House) is in her early thirties, but seems to be stuck in emotional adolescence and Esther (The Bell Jar) is in her late teens / college aged.
  • During this post-WWII, pre-second wave feminism era women struggled with balancing their desire for marriage and family with wanting independence and freedom. Esther (BJ) talks about a large fig tree with giant figs rotting off as representing different life paths and everything is rotting away because she cannot chose one thing. Eleanor (HH) wants to be cherished and loved, but also struggles with wanting her own space and to make her own decisions.
  • Both heroines have odd, enmeshed relationships with their mothers. Both Esther and Eleanor want to escape the control their mothers have, yet both daughters seem dependent on maternal approval and struggle to present a perfect, mom-approved, and well-put together façade.
  • Both heroines lie for no reason. Esther lies to a sailor about her name and her life and Eleanor lies about having an apartment. Each woman is presenting a false life to others. Each woman is also extremely adept at imagining themselves as living the life of another.
  • Lesbian frenemies. Yes, you read that right. Esther becomes sort of friends with Joan, a girl from her university. Joan ends up having a “close friendship” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) with another asylum patient. Eleanor and Theo vacillate from friendship to hating each other. It is implied (and more explicitly stated in the film, The Haunting) that Theo is a lesbian and it both fascinates and horrifies Eleanor.
  • Madness or nah? Shirley Jackson maintains that The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story (I’m still looking for citation information to confirm that) and The Bell Jar is certainly a story about a mentally ill college girl. However, the reader can link these two together because the supernatural has always been viewed as madness. Esther tries to commit suicide, but Eleanor either commits suicide or dies by supernatural intervention. Who can say what ended Eleanor’s life? Other “madness” narratives have elements of haunting, spirits or horror: The Turn of the Screw, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, The Yellow Wallpaper, and Jane Eyre. When women don’t fit in and have no space or acceptance allowing them to be their true selves they become alienated, cut-off, otherworldly.

Eleanor and Esther are haunted. Perhaps Eleanor is the only one haunted by the supernatural, but Eleanor and Esther are both haunted by not having a place to belong and be valued by society. In fact the opening line from The Haunting of Hill House could very easily been lifted from The Bell Jar, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”

Classics Club Spin: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

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Last week I finished my Classics Club Spin book, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I decided to be a rebel and read a book that wasn’t a classic because at the time I was already reading a ton of classics. This is my second Kate Morton book; I read The House at Riverton in 2010.

The Secret Keeper begins with 16 year old Laurel daydreaming over a boy in her childhood tree house. What was supposed to be a lovely family birthday party for her 2-year old baby brother, Gerry, turns into a bloody family secret when Laurel witnesses her mother stabbing a stranger to death (not a spoiler, I promise) in view of the tree house. The matter is hushed up and the family never discusses that day. Life goes on and it isn’t until Laurel’s aging mother, Dorothy, is dying that Laurel feels the need to find out the truth about the murdered stranger and her mother’s enigmatic past. The story that unfurls involves the World War II blitz, love, loss, and two women — Dorothy and her friend, Vivien.

Let me start out by saying I really enjoyed this novel. Truly. When I closed the book for the last time I sat in my chair for a minute just contemplating what a marvelous read I enjoyed. The historical detail is spot on. The characters feel truly human and I was completely invested in their lives, stories, and secrets. The writing style pulled me in and it almost felt like a Sarah Waters novel, like a slightly less polished, less dark Sarah Waters.

However, while I like the writing and characters I did have some issues with the plot. First of all there is a PLOT TWIST and I guessed said PLOT TWIST less than fifty pages into the book. I resisted the inclination to race through the novel to see if I was correct. Instead, I read plot spoilers, ascertained that I was 100% correct, and then continued to read and enjoy the path to the end I knew was coming. Secondly — and this is what I think makes it not as good as a Sarah Waters novel — everything ends ridiculously neat and tidy. I read several reviews that voiced this issue, but in different ways. Some readers have issues with Laurel’s research being so productive. I do not have an issue with that. Laurel’s research is not aided by a series of convenient coincidences (well, not entirely). I do believe that if you read the right books and look thoroughly in libraries and places important to your research subject you will turn-up the information you need if it exists. Anyone who works in a library (like I do) can attest to the joys of research paying off. I do take issue with the neat ending to the characters lives. Life is messy. Love and war are especially messy. Each character in the book has a neat and tidy end. We know exactly what happened and why it happened and every character gets “what they deserved” to a certain extent. One character has a sad ending. She was unlikable, but I could sympathize with her and knew it was the only ending available for this sort of character. Her end, however, made the story even more annoyingly tidy.

Despite the over-neat ending and plot twist predictability, this book had depth and left me thinking about motherhood. Specifically, I thought about motherhood through a child’s eyes. I can remember being in my late teens and realizing that my mother was a person. I had always viewed her as the person who loved me, read stories aloud, cooked dinner, and chatted with my dad over a cup of coffee. Everything my mom did, every decision she made, was viewed by me as having “mom” reasons. For example,I thought mom read all those books and took all those trips to the library so I would be smart and I didn’t even think about how mom may have done it for that reason, but really it was because she loved books and libraries. When I was about nineteen — and pregnant with Hope — I realized that my mother was so much more than a mom. Hopes, dreams, secrets, insecurities, hobbies, passions, opinions… my mom had this entire other life outside of being mom and it completely blew my mind. The Secret Keeper is a journey to find the answers to a brutal killing, but it is also Laurel’s journey and wonderment and learning who Dorothy is outside of her role as mother. In the end, mysteries are solved when Laurel remembers her mom as Dorothy, and not just mom. It made me think about how my kids view me and my past. I want them to know — especially my daughters — that all moms have other lives. We’re more than moms and our life experiences, joys, sorrows, and learning make us into the mothers we are today.
I was torn with how best to rate this novel. I give it four out of five stars for writing and character development and three out of five stars for plot, 3.5 sounds just about right.