Finding Purpose: Ikigai, The Japanese Concept Of A Life Well Lived

Not too long ago I was speaking with a friend about her decision to make a career switch. She’s a baker, like me, but is thinking about getting into the user interface side of the tech industry. We’re the same personality type on the Myers-Briggs so I can see her doing that type of work well. While we were on the topic, she sent me a link to an article about finding your Ikigai, a Japanese term that translates to finding your life’s purpose. And what’s more, there’s a practical guide to finding out what this is for you! I was hooked. But first, let me tell you a little about why this was so exciting for me to read about.

The Drift

Drifting through life listlessly was something that I knew all too well. I had drifted through my teens, twenties and through most of my thirties before I got a sense of how I wanted to live my life and the direction I wanted to take it in. This article, for me, was just frosting on the cupcake (thanks Sarah). A logical way to organize your passions is just the type of thing I’m passionate about and partly what this blog is about for me. But it took a lot of drifting for me to get to this point of self discovery.

The drift first started for me when I was in childhood still. My family had broke apart in what felt like one fell swoop and from that point on I had lost the support and foundation I had previously felt from my family. I was on my own from a very early age and it seemed that I was failing every test that life was throwing my way. It was a strange journey.

I remember looking at pornography as early as eight-years old, drinking when I was thirteen. Skipping school and falling in with the “wrong crowd” when I was in middle school and later, moving from sketchy apartment to unstable living situation until my late twenties. This was something that I attribute to not having many, if any stable role models growing up, showing me how to live a sustainable life. Just me, floating from uncertain situation to uncertain situation.

Role Models Matter

I’ve said before on this blog, my role models were living life like Jim Morrison, so I lived like him. And we all know how that story ended. But I studied Jim none-the-less, to find a sense of belonging as well as trying to have a good time while doing it. But as Modest mouse so aptly put it, the good times were indeed killing me.

I was drinking too much and avoiding all the relationships in my life, including the one with myself. It was a lonely place to be. I continued down this path until my early thirties, when things began to shift for me. But before that, I had literally no healthy role models to speak of and nothing to aspire to.

I kept shifting career focus in my schooling and it took me almost sixteen years to get my bachelors degree from start to finish! I changed my major twice and racking up close to 100k in debt in student loans and credit cards. This was a terrifying place to be. And all the while, no one thought to step in and intervein on my behalf. I understand that I was an adult, but I was also left to raise myself from the age of eight. Any guidance would have been helpful.

But unfortunately I was also the type of person who would scoff at the idea that I needed guidance. Mostly because I was taught that it was a sign of weakness to need somebody else’s help. This was the opposite of a healthy, well adjusted way of moving through life. I go into this some in my post on “Isolation and Being a Man“, about the unhealthy lessons I was taught on having to do it all on my own. Which is impossible, but that part of the lesson was left out of my schooling.

The Outcome

The outcome wasn’t good. I was left almost completely on my own save for a handful of supports, who thank God for them or things could have been really terrible for me. But I was still very much on my own, without any idea on how to move forward in my life.

My career was stagnant and I had little direction on where to go to do what I wanted while changing my life’s trajectory. I had some ideas on what I liked to do, but no idea how to shape that into something that I could make money from doing. This is the point where I needed to come up with a plan to make things happen for myself.

The Plan

This is where and when I started to take control of my situation by looking at what my strengths are and finding out what I liked and disliked. Luckily for me, I love it when a plan comes together : ) My MBPT is INTJ, so I’m a big picture person. This fits in beautifully with the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which in its most fundamental elements is; what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and something you can get paid for. Where all of these elements come together, this place is known as your Ikigai.

So my plan then became to look at my strengths and likes and then put them together to come up with a way to make them my focus and passion. And hopefully I’ll help some people along the way. So I began looking at the elements that come together that make me, me.

The Elements

I’ve always known that I like to organize things. Whether it’s a spice cabinet or my budget, I enjoy bringing different components together to be functional and coincide in harmony. I believe this is why bullet journaling is so appealing to me. It’s a place to organize thoughts and ideas while adding your own character to the process.

I also enjoy the different elements that come together that make a house, a home. I enjoy burning candles and the ambiance of a dimly lighted room. I enjoy engaging the senses through essential oil diffusers and softly playing music in the background. Being in the kitchen cooking meals is another source of enjoyment for me. The smells and heat from the range, smoker and oven, foods fermenting on the counter in colorful jars. The small things that come together to create a cozy environment.

Our shared green space is also something that’s been a resource for me. From some of my oldest memories of chanterelle picking with my uncle in the verdant mountains of Vermont, to hiking Killington on the Appalachian Trail a few years back, preserving these spaces is important to me. The fresh air and the scenery alone are well worth it, not to mention the environmental benefits keeping these spaces healthy brings.

And finally, bringing family and friends together in a sustainable way. A way where we can enjoy each others company in a non-judgmental, caring and kind way. Where we can enjoy and take comfort in the support and love we provide for one another. These are the things I love.

I also find refuge in writing. When I’m in the middle of putting a piece together, or come up with a fresh idea to write about, there’s a feeling of novelty, a sense of a new beginning. And being able to clearly communicate to others, be heard and hear others, is also something that’s very dear to me. Giving voice to the voiceless. Oh, and building things : )

Bringing It Together

Now that I have a good idea of what the elements of my personality are and most importantly, what brings me a sense of joy, I can use these as a jumping off point, into my Ikigai.

As an example of how my interests intersect my career path, I’m currently work in a family shelter. A sort of holding place for families experiencing homelessness. Although the circumstances are definitely sad, the attitudes are generally upbeat and surprisingly positive.

One of the ways I’ve been finding fulfillment at the shelter is by going through each area in the building, finding a new section of the shelter that needs a little TLC, and then organize and clean the crap out of these spaces.

A few weeks ago I started cleaning and organizing the pantry and kitchen storage in the shelter. If you’ve read my post on rotating your food stores, you’ll know I’ve already done a version of this in my own home. There’s a certain satisfying feeling I get when I look in my fridge and cabinets and see all my foods neatly organized as though they were shelves in a grocery. This probably hits me in a most primal place of food security, survival.

The Ikigai for me here is; I love to organize things, and especially food, the families needed a kitchen that was functional and well stocked with fresh foods, and I was getting paid for it. But watching the families gather in the kitchen and use the items I recently stocked was a rewarding feeling and the drive behind wanting to organize and clean. Watching them find joy in my work.

Living in a shelter, I can only imagine the amount of insecurity they are experiencing. So having enough food to fill this basic need must be a huge burden lifted from their day to day concerns. One more thing I’m able to help them with while also experiencing a sense of joy in the task.

And what’s more is, I was offered a full time position at the shelter helping to coordinate resources for the staff and families in helping find them permanent homes. So my love of organizing helped to show my dedication to the tasks that I take on, enough to be seen as indispensable. And all this by following where my interests lay.

Doing it For Yourself

When I was drifting, I didn’t have a focus, an anchor point. So I drifted from person to person, looking to be validated externally by what their expectations of me were. As a result, I wasn’t really living a life that was true to what I wanted, or what I even liked. This was no bueno, plain and simple. But that doesn’t mean that all of my previous experiences where negative ones, or something to be dismissed.

For example, I’m a baker by trade now and have worked in a variety of different capacities over the years. From bread baker to pastry chef, I’ve made a lot of baked goods. All of these past experiences have not only given me a great deal of appreciation for cooking and a zest for eating, it’s also given me the chance to work with some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. Such is the case with my current employer. Without their guidance and wisdom, I wouldn’t have made the choices and gained the experience to make me more of the best version of myself. And I will forever be grateful for their guidance.

What this means is, even if you’re not in your dream job right now, which I imagine is the case for most of us, find what you do like about the job you’re doing now. What are the aspects or tasks you have now that spark a little bit of creativity? What are the areas that bring you a sense of satisfaction when you complete them? Find these tasks and see where you can take them. Here is the starting point to finding your Ikigai.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. If you’ve found yourself in a place where you aren’t enjoying the different aspects of your job, maybe it’s time to dig a little deeper. Who knows what you’ll pull out. And maybe in the process, you just may find your calling. Peace, and thank for reading : )

Image Credits: “Ikigai- Japanese concept meaning ‘A reason for being’” by Mikel Agirregabiria Agirre is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Home Cooked: Why Does Cooking For Yourself Feel So Satisfying?

Home Is Where The Heart Is Or The Kitchen Is The Heart Of The Home

Every time I step into the kitchen to cook meal prep for the up coming weeks, I get a little excited. The atmosphere is soothing, with music playing quietly in the background while I’m burning a candle and the lights are dimmer than usual. The setting is cozy, warm and inviting. This is my image of what the Danes call, Hygge. Not to mention all of the delicious meals I make!

And there’s also a similar feeling when I cook dinner with my family on Friday family dinner night. It’s a little different, we all pitch in and lend a hand so the pressure isn’t all on me to get it done. But the feelings of creating something tasty together are the same, with the added bonus of good conversation. The music still plays in the background while a candle is burning, adding the “cozy” or Hygge to the night’s event. All in all a great experience.

So I wasn’t all that surprised when I came across this article on “The Good News Network” about how taking a cooking class has a magic pill like effect on our physical and mental well-being. This was great news, and collaborated on what I was already feeling about the experience. It got me thinking about what are the elements that come together to make a house a home? And how do we create those elements for ourselves? I’ve got a few ideas on the matter. Let me show you what I’ve come up with.

The Basic Elements Of A Cozy Home Start In The Kitchen

As I’ve said above, there are a few important components to building a comfortable, inviting home. For me, the number one element is cleanliness. If my living space isn’t organized and clean, then my mind isn’t able to rest. I keep focusing on the different aspect of what’s bothering me, what’s out of place.

For example, if my bedside table isn’t clear of clutter, I feel ill-at-ease. When things feel like they are just kind of drifting around my living space without a home, that’s when I know I need to organize.

Clean, Not Sterile

And that’s not to say that I’m so obsessed with cleaning that my environment is sterile. I’ve known people who clean to the point of sterility and this carries with it almost the same ill-at-ease feelings that living in a messy or dirty environment brings.

A good example of this is that when I make my bed, I don’t pull my covers taut over my mattress. I have a neatly folded duvet on the left side of my bed and I only sleep on the right side of my mattress. So making my bed proper would take a considerable amount of time. And this is time I just don’t want to spend making my bed.

So instead, I loosely lay my blanket on top of the side of the bed I sleep on. So my bed never looks neat and tidy as a bed with tightly formed hospital corners would. Instead it has a neat yet lived in feel. As though the room is thoughtfully cared for, but still embodies the character of something that’s been utilized, loved. Clean but not perfect. And all this to say that living in a sterile environment isn’t ideal.

How Clean Is Your Kitchen? You Can Usually Tell By The State Of Your Cutting Board

I use the same methodology when it comes to cleaning and caring for my kitchen. And the same way some people feel about making your bed every morning after you wake, I feel about cleaning my cutting board after I’m done with it.

The kitchen is where we spend a lot of time in our homes. It houses most all of our nutritional needs. We create or favorite meals there and it’s the place where we get clean water from. For staying hydrated throughout the day or to clean with, water the plants, the kitchen is literally where life is sustained.

So it stands to reason that if you neglect this room of your house, you are neglecting a large part of who you are as a living being. Food is so integral to us bonding with one another, as well as connected to our own and exploring other cultures, that it’s hard to imagine a life void of this type of expression.

For me, this is most noticeable on the cutting board. The cutting board is the hub of the kitchen and where almost every aspect of our meals come together. We process almost all our foods on it, use it as a holding place for most all our ingredients while getting our recipes prepped for cooking and it is paired with arguably the most important tool in the kitchen, our knife.

For these reasons, when I step up to my cutting board and see a stain from a recently cut tomato on it, or crumbs from a cut sandwich or piece of toast, I think, “what type of animal would disrespect the kitchen in this way?” This is hyperbole, but when I see a dirty cutting board I feel that there’s a little bit of neglect happening when it comes to respecting the ways we nourish and care for ourselves. Also, I don’t want to cut a fresh piece of melon on a spot where an onion and some garlic were recently diced/minced. Garlicy honeydew, no thank you.

Also, I’ve recently been oiling my cutting board and it’s never looked better. If you have the means, or already have a wooden cutting board, I suggest you get one and/or oil it regularly. It protects the board from water damage while also giving it a warm glow that looks amazing.

My cutting board after some much needed maintenance.

How Organized Are You? It Matters

Organization is an important part of the experience as well. For the same reasons that I feel ill-at-ease in cluttered surroundings, when I’m not sure where my kitchen tools or ingredients are, or have foods that are past their expiration date, I feel as though I’m neglecting an important part of my life.

For example, I work at a family homeless shelter six days a month. A few weeks ago I decided to organize the kitchen cabinets. I jumped right in and took a look at the state of the cabinets before I started. It was pretty bad. It looked like a bomb had gone off in the cabinets, scattering food debris all over the shelves in no particular order. I opened one cabinet to find that it was housing three plates. That was it. Not to mention all the food that was expired that I ended up tossing.

So I started asking the families what they would use more of if I brought food stuffs up from the pantry? Their answers? The most common one was, “I don’t eat the food from here”. This made me sad. We had neglected the food and kitchen so badly that people no longer wanted to use the incredible amount of free resources we had for them. And there was a lot of food that needed to be utilized.

And I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to cook in that kitchen the way it was either. And they’re not any less deserving of a clean, usable kitchen just because they’re homeless. That’s when I got to work. Tossing the old, out of date items and filling the cabinets with fresh stores, the way they’re displayed in a grocery. While I was organizing, I left the cabinets open to not only to keep track of my progress, but also to show the families that we have items for them to use, so jump in.

When I was done stocking the cabinets, everyone was excited. Even those who said they didn’t eat the food there were interested and using what I was bringing up. The kitchen now looks clean and inviting, more home like. And people are now gathering in the kitchen, cooking meals and connecting. The kitchen no longer resembles that of a twenty-something’s party house that maybe had a bag of stale chips and a can of dated beef stew, with a sink full of week old dishes. No bueno.

Rotating Your Stock to Stay Organized, Fresher Is Better

Next on the agenda was to take care of the root of the problem, the pantry. While I was going through the pantry to find goods for the cabinets, I was startled by how many food items had met their expiration dates. There were bins of half opened cases of food with expiration dates later than some unopened cases. Whole cases of canned goods and other items were past date. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I went through each item, checked their date and found a place for them on the shelves. I was rotating the stock, breaking down boxes, discarding the old, it was a dramatic shift.

I felt bad about throwing out some of the canned goods that were past their expirations by only a few months. This was because a quick google search tells me that they’re still viable usually for a year or two after the date on the can. But the more I thought about it, the more it felt like a psychological issue of using expired goods.

Imagine you’re in a homeless shelter. You have a mountain of problems and issues to get over and that’s not including taking care of your basic needs like doing your laundry, cleaning your living space and cooking meals. Also imagine that you have one or two children in tow, or are pregnant. Now it comes time to make dinner and you ask for a can of carrots because you don’t have a car to get to the closest grocery store which is only two miles away but a long walk for somebody with a child and arm loads of grocery bags. You get the carrots only to find that the expiration date is marked for nine months prior and you don’t want to dig around the cabinets that look as though an animal has nested in them. How do you feel then?

I’ve never been in that situation before, but I know for sure that it can’t be a good feeling. Feeling as though someone else feels that you’re not worth the effort of fresh food sounds like a difficult place to be. That’s why organizing and rotating your food stores is so important to feeling a sense of ease and comfort in your kitchen. For me, knowing that I can grab anything off the shelf and use it without worrying about whether it’s turned is an act of self-care.

Creating Hygge, Bringing It All Together

Once You’ve brought all the elements of the physical space together, then it will be easy to bring friends and family together, while adding the final touches to the space. I usually have a candle and some music playing while I’m bring meals together. The soft lighting from the candle and soothing sounds help to bring an element of calm to the kitchen and allows me to slow down a bit and relax.

All that’s left is to find what makes your space, more you. Maybe you have a favorite drink you can prepare for yourself to help unwind. Do you use a diffuser? Find a scent you enjoy and fill your space with. My go to is lavender oil. It brings a soothing quality to the room while not overpowering what I’m cooking.

And don’t forget the conversation! Invite a few friends over or start a family dinner night. This can be a great time to connect and get to know each other a little better while creating new memories. And don’t forget to relax. Go slow and take your time. There’s no rush and there’s something to be said for enjoying the process. I usually do just this when I’m cooking my self-care dinner on Tuesday nights now. You’ll def feel better about yourself and your surroundings. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Day 69: Inspiration” by protoflux is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Black Friday :( Green Friday :) Some Sustainable Gift Ideas for the Holidays

Growing up in my family, shopping may as well have been a basic need, along with food, water, coffee and vodka tonics. This is no exaggeration. As a child, I feel as though I spent more time in department stores that in my house or playing outside. The women in my family were literally always shopping. I remember car rides during the day where we would bounce back and forth between department stores and strip malls in search of the best deal.

There isn’t a lot to do when you’re a kid in a clothing store. Except hoping that you don’t have to try on any clothing while you’re there. But all in all the experiences of shopping when I was younger weren’t stellar. And that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy shopping now.

There is something about getting something new, something that you enjoy or know is going to fit that need you have for something just like it in you daily rituals. But when you’re buying things you don’t need or have never used, then maybe we need to reassess our shopping habits.

And with the gift giving holidays right around the corner, what better time to take a look at our patterns than in the next few weeks. Some questions we could be asking are; who are we buying for? How many people are on our list? Do we have a go to brand, type of gift or place we check out first? Are these gifting patterns sustainable? In this post, I’ll be sharing some of my gift giving experiences and what’s worked for me in the past, as well as what I’m looking into this season. Hopefully, we can find some sustainable and joy inspiring gifts while keeping the focus on what’s important. Not the new trend or “it” item, but the happiness of the person we’re getting the gift for.

Buy for the Personality, Not the Person

This may seem like a no brainer, but it’s worth mentioning when we start to choose what we’re buying for whom. What type of person are you buying for? Are they extroverted or are they a homebody? What are their hobbies? Their guilty pleasures? How close are you to the person? These are all elements worth exploring while selecting the gift that would best match their personality.

And then there’s the type of gift we usually give. Are you the type of person who likes to get gift cards? Our do you love buying clothes for your giftees? Do you like buying kitchen gadgets for people? Maybe the newest tech is your thing. There’s nothing wrong with any of these options, but there are only so many of any one thing that someone can reasonably own and use.

The Foodie

I can say from experience that I have a kitchen full of tools and if I were to lose 70% of them, I’d still be in pretty good shape. If someone you’re buying for loves to cook, why not instead of gifting another gadget that may go unused, find something that they enjoy daily. Like a special blend of coffee beans that’s organic and shade grown. Or if they’re tea drinkers, I was recently gifted this organic jasmine green, ginger peach tea from Kilogram Tea. There are also subscriptions you can purchase that sends a variety of teas to the person’s door.

This option could be used for any type of consumable the foodie in your life loves. It’s essentially something they would buy for themselves anyway, and it cuts back on the amount of objects the person will own. Saving those items from later being tossed in a landfill. Win win.

The Nondescript Gift

Gift cards are another perfectly good option. But what is the gift card for? Instead of buying something that will eventually take up space, why not think about something that will last in the form of a memory? Instead of a gift card to their favorite store or hobbie shop, what about a certificate to a restaurant, or a live show.

If you’re a fan of NPR, there’s a show called The Moth, where people get up on stage and tell their story. The show is fantastic to listen to on air or as a podcast. But they usually tell their stories in front of live audiences. Which means you can buy tickets for events that are happening near you. They’re held nationwide, so all you need to do is keep an eye out for an event that is coming your way.

Restaurants are another way to share an experience with your friend. Giving them a gift card to a restaurant that just opened, or maybe somewhere they wouldn’t normally go, is a great way to give a new experience over an object. This is something that will at least have a story when they’ve gone and may be the future site of where you and your friends will gather for a meal and some stories. Maybe before going to a live Moth show : )

The Fashionista

Buying clothing is a popular route to take when gift giving. But most people’s wardrobes are already filled to the brim with many articles that go unworn. And there are people like me who go clothes shopping mostly at thrift stores. Hoping to give some pieces of clothing a second shot at life. So what do we do for the fashion forward person in our lives?

When I buy new clothing, I mostly try to buy from a company that has pieces made from 100% organic cotton. This way, I don’t have to worry about my clothing ending up in a landfill, because even if it does, it will most likely compost before too long. And also I don’t have to worry about the garment releasing microfibers into the oceans and water ways as it’s washed, as I wrote about in my piece, “Is it better to buy organic cotton or recycled polyester“?

One place I’ve been buying clothing from is a company called Pact. They sell mostly the basics. Socks and underwear, while also selling bedding and bath. They use 100% organic cotton in their materials, and their clothing is comfortable, and reasonably priced. However, if you’re looking for something other than the basics, this article from Earth.org has a list of 16 sustainable clothing companies for shopping in 2021.

Gifting fashion can be a great way to get something special for a loved one. But remember that clothing is unique to each individual person’s style and personality. So make sure to have a chance to return whatever gift if it doesn’t quite match up to the person’s expectations.

The Techie

Buying sustainable technology is more difficult than I would have expected. I suppose this isn’t a huge surprise as they are coming out with new phones and technologies all the time. It can be difficult to find something that works with the person’s personal preference, phone carrier or other requirements they may have. Technology is becoming as personal as style.

But the sad truth is, there just isn’t a lot of options for buying sustainable technology based gifts. This article from UK blogger, The Sustainable Jungle, goes into detail about how the tech industry is behind the times in the sustainability department. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find some companies out there doing good work for the environment.

This article from the honest consumer, had a few recommendations for tech accessories, such as compostable phone cases and chargers made with recycled plastics. Again, pickings are slim but it’s a start.

I also came across a phone company making fair trade and sustainable phones. Fairphone. But unfortunately they are only offering their phones and other items to the European market. But a company like this is just what the sustainable market in the US needs. Hopefully, with a little time and some foresight, there will be a company state side that will offer something comparable. I’ll be keeping an eye out and let you know if anything changes on this front.

Wrapping Up

Here are only a few ideas to get you started on your gift buying journey this season. Also, Buy Me Once is another great source for inspiration in sustainable gift giving. So good luck with finding the right matches of gifts with people this season, and remember, don’t go overboard.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the spirit of gift giving. But if we’re just buying things because it’s a good deal or we already have something that’s thoughtful but something else caught your eye, it starts to mean less.

Be intentional with your gifts. Give yourself the time you need to make a decision based on your relationship to the giftee. We don’t need a whole bunch of stuff to remember how much we’re loved, just a few well thought out objects that hold meaning to us. Thanks for reading : ) peace

Image Credits: “Christmas Present Table after the gift giving” by Musicaloris is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Shopping From Your Pantry First: Save Money, Eat Fresher

I’ve recently been looking at my cupboards lately with some concern. I have rows of dried goods stacked neatly in mason jars. Bottles of tea, 18 of them, lined up neatly next to one another, below the mason jars and next to the large collection of cooking oils I have. There are also the usual suspects, bags of sugar, pasta and sauces. And the pantry doesn’t look much better. There are stacks of partially used grains and beans, back ups of what’s stored in the rows of mason jars. It’s kind of a mess and a little disorganized.

And what’s more, some of those grains and oils have been taking up residency for years! Sure, all the beans, grains and teas look good displayed in the glass jars, but this is my cupboard, not a museum. I was thinking about what happened to get me to this place, and I vaguely remember shopping for groceries, picking up bags of beans, pasta, “staples” that I thought I would need to make meals. Only those meals never came, and I am left with a cupboard full of food that has gone neglected for nearly half a decade.

This is no bueno. I am treating my food stores like you would curate pieces for a museum. But this is no way to nourish yourself. Eating hoarded goods that are years old is unnecessary and more to the point, tells me something about the ways I’m relating to food. Why am I holding on to these items? Why am I massing these foods to begin with? The answers to these questions were directly related to the ways I was brought up, and how I learned to, or not to nourish myself and my body.

I was brought up in a house that was barren of a lot of things. Mostly love, but food was a close second. We always had enough to eat growing up, but there was no deviating from the plan my caregivers had mapped out. We had the same five or six meals, for years on repeat. There were always boxes of cereal and bottles of soda in the cupboards, and sometimes leftovers in the fridge.

I was often uncertain of what to eat, or what I could eat due to my caregiver often saying, “there’s a house full of food, I don’t know why you’re hungry”. Though was severely scolded when I attempted to defrost pork chops one day in an attempt to make a meal with the house full of food I was in. The messages were mixed and confusing.

And to add to the confusion, I was never taught the basics of how to take care of my nutritional needs. I was never shown how to budget for groceries, taught how to cook meals for myself or even that I should eat when I’m hungry! I skipped breakfast and lunch for decades because of these lessons, one of them being coffee as a meal substitute. I also didn’t start grocery shopping until I was in my late twenties, or really cook meals for myself to eat for the week until seven years ago! This seems crazy to me thinking about it now, but food, along with a myriad of other topics, just didn’t get discussed.

If you’ve read my post on rotating your food stores, I go over this in a bit more detail. The ways I was taught to neglect my nutritional needs. I also had some suggestions on how to change some of the old habits that I’ve cultivated from a life’s time worth of being a drift in a sea of food insecurity. But I’m back with a plan and want to share with you what I’m doing in my kitchen to help change my relationship with food and how I care for my nutritional needs. Let me show what I’ve come up with!

As the title of this post suggests, the beginning of this journey starts in the pantry. Among the bottles of carefully curated seeds, grains, beans and flours, this is where I had been amassing large quantities of food items with no intended purpose. I have close to thirty bottles of dried goods on my shelf! So the first step was to take stock of the ingredients I have on hand and do some research on what types of recipes would be able to utilize the ingredients I already have.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Minimalist Baker is a great resource for using ingredients I have on hand because a good portion of her recipes use ten ingredients or fewer, and most of them are pantry staples like onions and garlic (she also has a great post on how to stock a pantry here). But you can use whichever site you enjoy the recipes from. Most sites will have a search bar where you can type in an ingredient and do a quick search for corresponding recipes. Minimalist Baker has a search by ingredient filter which is ideal for this situation.

So after I take stock of what I have in my pantry, I choose three to four ingredients to focus my meal prep around. Let’s say I’ve chosen the five pound bag of cranberries that have been collecting dust, the jar of kidney beans that are old enough to eat solid foods, the two bags of black beans that are surprisingly and relatively young considering their shelf mates, and a half of a jar of yellow lentils.

I take these four ingredients and do a quick search on my go to recipe website. I find that I can use the Kidney and black beans in a chili, with onion and sweet potatoes I already have. So I put the few items on the shopping list that are missing from the pantry, from the recipe, and move onto the next one I’ve chosen.

Overnight oats are already on the menu for the next few weeks, so adding the cranberries to the mix with the seed and nuts I pick up from the market was an easy match. And the ingredients for the curried, lemon lentils I planned for were already on hand. I put a few more ingredients on the list, some staples and for my self-care Sunday dinner, and my shopping list was complete. I only had about a dozen items on my list, and even shopping at Whole Foods, my grocery bill was still only 45$ for two weeks!

If you use the grocery store for supplemental supplies to your pantry, and you shop mostly whole foods, i.e. fresh produce and unprocessed meats, generic brands, bulk section items like grains and beans and staples like butter and milk, your grocery bill is surprisingly light. You also have the added benefit of eating a healthier diet full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. And the fresher the better. The longer food sits around unused, the less nutritional value it retains.

I’ve also come up with a way to organize my shopping list so I can easily scan my recipes and know which ingredients to purchase. First, I make a list of all the separate ingredients from all of my staple recipes. So I have two lists, one list of recipes, and the other a list of grocery items that are ingredients to the recipes on the first list.

Next, I assign a different symbol to each recipe. For example, if chili is on my staple recipe list, I give that recipe a symbol such as +. Then I go down the separate list of ingredients and put a + symbol next to any ingredients that are in the recipe with the corresponding symbol.

I repeat this process for each recipe in my staples list till all of my ingredients have a symbol next to them representing a staple recipe. This way when I choose the recipes I’m cooking for the next two to three weeks from my staple recipe list, I can quickly scan the ingredients list, using the recipe symbol to see what I need to stock up on.

This works particularly well with double batches of recipes or multiples. For example, say I’m making three recipes that all use garlic and one of the recipes I’m making is going to be a double batch. On the ingredients list, garlic may look like this, “@ # $ % + * Garlic”. The symbols all represent recipes, but the recipes I’m making for the following three weeks are, % + and a double batch of *. So when I add the symbols together, + % 2*, I know I have to have at least enough garlic for four recipes. So when I put garlic on the shopping list, I put it on as “garlic x 4”. This way I can purchase just what I need for the recipes I’m cooking without buying a lot of surplus. While also helping to keep my food stock fresher.

Speaking of fresh stock, if you have a green thumb, this is a perfect opportunity to shop super fresh, real local and on the cheap! I’m lucky enough to have a sizeable vegetable garden. Last year we didn’t need to buy garlic until about a few weeks ago and for the cost of a few packets of seed, your return on investment is ridiculously high. It does require planning and maintenance, and to plant vegetables that you will actually use in recipes.

Planning is important in that if you like cucumbers, but don’t know that they are prolific producers and you plant too many plants, you’re going to be swimming in brine from all the pickles you’ll be making. So when planning a garden, do the research and know what to plant, when to plant and how many to plant. And you don’t need a lot of space to grow your own. Container gardens are popular in cities where green space is scarce. Maybe start with growing a few of the herbs and spices you use most frequently to have a fresh selection on hand when it comes time to cook. And how do you know what to cook or grow?

This was something I struggled with for a while until I read a post on how to set up a pantry. Dana suggested to pick ten or so recipes that you cook often and buy your pantry staples from that list. It made so much sense to me that I immediately got to selecting the recipes I used most frequently, and put them in a bookmark folder labeled as such.

The only problem with this method is, there is a lack of variety. And I’m not cooking the same meals in the summer as I am in the winter. So I decided to create four folders, with ten recipes each corresponding to each season with those ingredients that are available during the time of year. This way I’ll have three months to use up whatever food I have from the list of staples I use, and I always have something new to choose from. Paired with my self-care Sunday dinners where I chose a new recipe to try each week, I won’t be short on new recipes to try.

I also batch cook my meals for the weeks ahead. This way I know I’ll have what I need to make my meals well in advance, because I’ve already got my recipes picked out. This way my shopping list only a matter of quickly scanning my pantry to see what I’m missing.

This may seem overwhelming at first glance. And it can be a bit much to take on. What I find that works best to help ease some of the tension of preparing meals is giving yourself plenty of time. I usually sit down at some point during the week and plan out what the next three weeks are going to look like. Here is where I plan for the day to day stuff, exercize, appointments and general domestics like when I’m cooking and when I’m going shopping for my cooking day.

This takes the stress out of not knowing when I’ll have the time to fit it into my schedule while also giving me plenty of time to plan for my upcoming shopping trip and cooking day. I’ll start by picking a day to shop and cook, and the night before I’ll check the three or four recipes I have for ingredients. I’ll shop from my pantry first, then check the recipe and find the items I’m missing. These get added to the list, along with what I’m getting low on and I’m ready to shop the following day.

On shopping day, I take my list and usually shop after work. When I get home, I set the tone for the night by getting my area ready with my recipes, light a candle and play some soft music. I turn off the harsh over head lights and then start the cooking process making sure to go as slow as I need to so I don’t feel rushed. Meal prep has become an integral part of my self-care routine and something I find great joy in.

With all the ingredients prepped before I jump into the cooking process, the recipe comes together in no time and the stress is nearly non-existent. I also keep my meals for the next few weeks in glass jars in the fridge, so seeing them lined up on the counter to cool, before they go into the fridge with the relaxing setting carries with it a sense of accomplishment.

And this brings us back to the starting new, healthier habits surrounding our food choices. Now that we’ve cleaned out the old items, and made room and space for new and fresher ingredients to be rotated in and out of use, the new question is, how much food do we really need to keep on hand?

This answer will be different for every person. I know that my food needs are different from a family of five. But where do we draw the line on what is enough? For me, maybe a goal of having enough staple ingredients for a month’s worth of staple recipes is optimal. This way my food stores stay fresh and I can incorporate new recipes into my meal plan as I see fit. Also I’m not holding onto items I don’t need because I’m afraid that if I don’t have them, something terrible will happen.

And that is the main goal. To take the fear and anxiety of preparing meals out of our food and the ways we nourish ourselves. It’s a little different if you’ve had negative experiences with and around food, but eating is so closely linked to our safety and well being that it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you were left in the dark as I was, fumbling around trying to understand how to care for yourself without guidance, it can feel scary to go it alone.

I hope this has been helpful to you in some way. If you have any comments or methods you use that you’ve found help you in the kitchen, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Spice Management” by Sharon Drummond is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Food and Family: How Cooking Together can Build Tighter Familial Bonds

It’s no secret, food brings people together. Culturally it creates bonds and even some good natured disagreements. I’ve been cooking for most of my professional career. But it wasn’t until recently that I really started cooking for myself. If you’ve read my post on self-care Sundays, you’ll know that food was an area that I neglected for a long time. What I hadn’t realized though, was that this was also true for my entire family.

This seems crazy to me now, knowing that most all my caregivers were involved in the food service industry to some degree. One was working in it and one had gone to cooking school!

But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. If you have an insecurity around food it stands to reason that you would find a way to be immersed in it. After all, eating is one of the things we need to do to survive. If we experience abuse or neglect around this basic need, things can get really out of hand.

As I’ve said above, I know this to be true from my experience. Cooking for me as a career choice was a way to be surrounded by a source of nutrition so I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself. But this was no way to live.

I was just trying to survive at the time. I was barely able to take care of myself, and all I had down at that point in life were the very basics, just enough to get by. And I found that a lot of people are drawn to the food industry in some variation of this same reason.

When you work in the industry, the bonds you make can be pretty tight. There was definitely a sense of family when I showed up to work, or family as I had known it. With the hustle and pressure that came with the dinner time rush, to the beers we drank together while cleaning up, it definitely felt like gathering for a holiday or some special event like a graduation.

And while I have fond memories of working in the food industry, the ways I was living were not sustainable. And I imagine it was this way for my caregivers as well. I was certainly emulating their behaviors in the ways I was living. And it isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to think that they were experiencing what I was at some level. Another way to put it, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Even more to the point, when I did gather with my caretakers, there was such a sense of urgency paired with lots of drinking. The same atmosphere that was present in most kitchen jobs I worked in. We were creating the same type of perpetual party that was the culture in the restaurant scene. And if it wasn’t sustainable in the restaurant, it definitely was less so at home.

I remember many mornings where my caretakers would be cleaning up after the night of rancorous drinking. Where there were as many cans as there were loud opinions being tossed around, figuratively. This was a strange place to grow up in as a child, and one I wouldn’t wish for anyone to experience. I’m not trying to imply that my caregivers are bad people. They didn’t know any differently and more to the point it’s how they grew up. But it was a scary place to be as a vulnerable child to be sure.

More recently, I’ve been cooking for myself as a way to care for my nutritional needs. Something I was never taught. Now I am coming to enjoy the process of bring my meals together. I usually batch cook recipes for the week. I’ll pick two to three recipes to cook, pick a day to go grocery shopping and cook my meals for the next two weeks all in one night.

I usually light a basil scented candle and put some of the more ambient lighting on in my kitchen. I clean out my fridge and gather my ingredients, ready my recipes on my computer, put some soft music on in the background and go through my recipes one at a time. Making sure that I take as much time as I need so as not to feel rushed or pressured in anyway. If it’s in the winter, I choose recipes that utilize the oven to generate more heat in the kitchen, to create a more cozy, comfortable setting. I also like drinking a few cups of herbal tea while cooking in the colder months. And in the summer, more salads and dishes with raw veggies. As well as some lemonade or iced herbal teas as a refreshing change for the warmer season.

The ease that I’ve brought to this aspect of how I take care of myself has become a great resource for me. I feel safe, calm and at ease in the kitchen. Instead of insecure, a bit of fear and the uncertainty I used to feel. What I realize now, was I was carving a space out for myself to feel safe, in control. I was so used to having almost every aspect of my life being so out of control that I literally didn’t feel safe anywhere. Once I established a foothold for safety in the kitchen, I padded my kitchen and cooking time with loads of resources in order to bring that sense of calm, ease and comfort I was working so hard to cultivate there. So after I made my kitchen and meal prep routine a resource, I thought to myself, “how can I share this with others?”

I’ve been having dinner with my parents more often lately. It’s been good, but I’ve always kind of had the feeling that something was missing from the experience. We typically would gather around the T.V. after serving ourselves from the kitchen. We’d talk a little, but the T.V. had always been the focal point while we idoly chatted about random events. Nothing too personal or in-depth. Just glancing the surface of what was happening around us and speaking in broad generalizations.

We never shared cooking duties. One person usually picked the recipes and the other would cook while we waited for the meal to be ready. It was very mechanical and without much feeling. We were eating to survive and not enjoying the process of coming together to share a meal. Then one day while I was making dinner, or cleaning up, I had the idea to make dinner feel more like a family event as opposed to just shoveling food in our mouths while watching the television.

So it was a natural transition that I thought to take the way that I’ve turned my meal prep into a self-care routine, and bringing those same principles to our family dinners. I thought that this way, we can practice taking care of ourselves and one another together, while also bringing an element of peacefulness to something that, for me, used to be a hectic and sometimes scary place to be.

Also, we’ve never cooked a meal together before. This was also something that kind of blew my mind. So as well as practicing self-care, we’ll be growing tighter bonds with one another and the food we’re creating. I suggested that we take turns picking the recipes. Each week someone can choose, and we’d all come together in a thoughtful way to create something we’ll all enjoy. The idea landed and we planned to come together the next Friday night to cook a meal I chose.

The recipe was chana masala. A simple dish I enjoy that I had just found a new recipe for. I was definitely nervous about the night leading up to dinner. I was really taking a risk by opening myself up and sharing something that has become such a resource for me. I felt vulnerable, uncertain, scared and a little on edge.

The reason I felt so unsure was that most of my childhood memories around meal times were filled with lots of angry yelling and shattered dinner wear. I knew that things were different now. We had all mellowed our tempers since those early meals together, but there was still a place inside of me that felt as though it could happen again. That I wasn’t safe.

As the time came nearer to begin cooking, we all gathered in the kitchen and readied ourselves for the event. I made myself a cup of tea and went around gathering the ingredients we would need for the dish. My father gathered some utensils and started in on prepping the veggies and my mother began gathering and measuring out the spices and herbs we needed. We all took to our tasks quickly and rigidly with pensive attention.

The atmosphere was tense. As though we’d all been here before, but hadn’t been there for so long that we forgot what to do. It should have been instinctual, but instead we were left with awkward half spoken sentences. Reading and rereading the same directions over and over again. Missing steps, forgetting ingredients, I was using a mortar and pestle to grind chiles, garlic, cilantro and ginger into a paste that took what felt like forever and the closest I came was a wet chunky mess. The lighting was bright and harsh, and the music I tried to play kept turning itself off. It was the opposite of the resource my meal prep had come to mean for to me.

But when I finished washing our dishes and went to the stove to see how the chana was coming along and how the ingredients we had prepped separately had come together, it looked good. It smelled aromatic and was thick and stew like. It was better than I had imagined. And as the meal prep went on, our conversation felt more natural as well.

We found out about how each other’s day’s had gone. My mother just got new glasses and we were discussing the differences she noticed from her old ones as compared to her new ones. My father told me stories about his past, something I know very little about. As I was cleaning the cutting board I asked where my father got it. He couldn’t remember and my mother didn’t know either, but I enjoyed cleaning that board as I always do knowing that’s it’s just always been there.

As we finished cooking our meal, I put the naan I had picked up for the meal in the toaster and my father had gotten some bowls from the cupboard, I felt more at ease. I wasn’t totally comfortable, but it was the start of feeling safe again. As though maybe it was okay to start to trust those I choose to keep company with. This was something I had been notoriously bad at when I was younger.

The friends I had kept in my youth were mean, spiteful and said hurtful things often and without reserve. It truly felt like a sport we were playing. Who could demean the other to the point where someone would break. And of course we all pretended not to be hurt, but we couldn’t feel anything to begin with because we were already so numb. The damage had already been done, the games we were playing were just practice from lessons we learned long ago.

This is what makes building new bonds so scary. Knowing How I used to be in relationship with others, and that I chose to be in those relationships was nothing but self destructive. And what’s more, I’m trying to rebuild some of my relationships with people I originally learned those old lessons from?! It felt a lot like juggling knives. So knowing that I can trust myself enough to create healthy bonds, or at least know what unhealthy relationships and boundaries look like was something I wasn’t wholly sure I was able to do.

But then I realized that I had already done this in some ways. I remember getting together with an old friend somewhere close to both of us. This was a step towards seeing if we were able to stay in touch, keep connected. When we sat down and started talking about old times, some of those same spiteful remarks were popping up in our conversation. It was as though they were poking around the edges, to see how close they could get to my core. To see if they could still walk right in, past security and do whatever they felt without meeting resistance.

Luckily I had established some healthy boundaries for myself. I was not my same old self, the one who would leave themself wide open to be abused in the ways I had been used to, all to feel a sense of belonging. I recognized what was happening and since have kept to my boundaries. And I feel much better for it though it wasn’t easy. I still miss the bonds I made but now recognize just how unhealthy they were.

And with the new bonds I’m creating, there is definitely a sense of mutual respect. We care for one another in that we respect one another’s space and boundaries in ways I wasn’t ever shown before. And that was one of the aspects of making dinner with my father and mother that was so reassuring. That we were all nervous about how we were affecting one another showed me that they were thinking of my wellbeing. And that makes me feel a little more secure in building new bonds with them.

This all seems pretty basic, but if all you know growing up are people without boundaries and saying and doing the most hurtful things to one another, it’s nice to know that you can change the ways you used to be. That there is hope for the future and future relationships. That was something that was definitely missing from my early interactions in all my relationships.

Now that we’ve cooked together once, we plan on making it an on going, weekly event. We ended the night by sharing how we felt and our hopes for the future. It felt more natural than it ever had and I think we all left that night feeling a little more hopeful for our future together.

And it’s something that has made me stronger in my other relationships as well. I went into the next day feeling a little more self confident in communicating to and interacting with other people, knowing that I had people I could rely on. That I had carved out another little space of safety in a world that sometimes feels as uncertain as it did in my youth. A place to go back to when I needed some support and feeling loved.

And all it took was for someone to come up with the idea and bring it into fruition. I am now looking forward to helping them this summer in the vegetable garden, knowing that the meals we’ll be making will be even sweeter using the fresh produce we’ll be harvesting from the yard. I’m also looking forward to helping them with projects around the house.

Helping them build a back porch or patio, a place to gather and enjoy the garden and grilling weather in the summer. A place to eat meals and gather outside. Carving out another place where we can all feel a little safer coming together. With a little luck and some work, maybe we can make the house feel more like our home.

So if you have some family you’re trying to reach out to but aren’t sure how, maybe cooking a meal together would be a good place to start. And if cooking isn’t your thing, find something you are all interested in, start there. Wherever it is, be the one to make the first step. I’ve found that people are almost always going to say yes when you ask them if they want to have a good time.

Usually it just takes someone to make the first step, make the plan. Be that person. You’ll be happy you did. But if it’s something that is still tender, or emotionally raw, go slow. It doesn’t help to rush yourself to try and feel comfortable because you feel you “should” be. Have a plan where you can take care of yourself if the need arises.

I am lucky in that the people I chose to rebuild my relationships with were not only willing to try, but also capable of doing the important work of self-introspection. Being aware of how they feel and how they affecting those around them. This is no easy task for people whom are used to isolating as a form of self protection. And not everybody is able to take to it so willingly.

Don’t be afraid to end your plans if you feel as though your boundaries are being violated. Above I mentioned that I had got together with an old friend who had not changed from our shared unhealthy past. I had ended our meeting early that day, telling them I felt uncomfortable with the way things were going. And now I keep very limited contact with them for this reason.

I was honest with myself, and with them about how I felt my boundaries were being abused, and took care of myself by removing myself from the situation. Also limiting future contact with them, until I am certain I can trust them enough not to violate my boundaries. This is how I’m actively taking care of myself, and building trust in myself in the process.

And it’s not easy. But if you don’t define your boundaries, others are more than willing to define them for you. From work, to romantic relationships, family and friends, if you don’t have a clear idea of how you want to be treated in your relationships, you leave yourself open to having your trust abused as well as many other important aspects of your connections. And it isn’t always the other person’s fault either.

Friends and family aren’t mind readers. What may be a sign of intimacy to one person may be an insult to another. This is why speaking your feelings is so important. When establishing boundaries, especially if you’ve had unhealthy ones before, you need to establish what is and is not okay to do in clear terms. This can be awkward, but however awkward it may feel in the moment, it’s worth it to know that you’ve established your expectations clearly on how you will be treated.

It’s empowering knowing you’re taking care of yourself in this way. And also a good indicator of the other person being trustworthy of being emotional support to you. By actively, not passively setting boundaries, you are building the trust and bonds that will last. If this is something you’ve had difficulty with historically, then it’s a good way to slowly rebuild healthy relationships knowing you have your best interests at heart.

Establishing boundaries, especially with those whom you may have already fallen into unhealthy ways of relating to one another can be tricky. And like anything else, it isn’t easy! This is an area where you will need to bring, and if necessary, cultivate a lot of patients with yourself and others. And it’s important to go slow. There’s no point in rushing into something if you or the other person aren’t ready for the changes. So go slow and keep an open mind, and know that you are good deep down, and worthy of trust. Peace 🙂 be well and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Lindell family cooking” by One Tonne Life is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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