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

Building Shelves, Building Community: Opening the Doors to Closer Bonds

A few months ago I was standing in my kitchen while preparing for my weekly meal prep. I went into the back pantry where we store food items and was frustrated with how disorganized it all was. There were multiples of the same item scattered around the shelves that probably sat there for months, if not years just taking up room. We were running out of space in the cabinet where we kept most of our dry goods and the area we had in the pantry was poorly organized and overflowing with food items. Most of them not likely to be used for years. It was overwhelming and frustrating to say the least.

As I stood there looking at the mess that we called the back pantry, I wondered how and why it came to be this disorganized. From what I could gather, as I said in my post on how we treat our pantries, one of the ways we got here was by treating (our) pantry like a museum. Curating different staples. Things (we) should have to have food. One thing was clear. Something needed to change.

Still standing there and looking at our collected mess, I racked my brain for ways to improve our storage situation. To give you an idea of what the pantry looks like, it is a small space, maybe 20-25 square feet. There is a closet on the left that is void of shelving. Only the casing of an old broom closet that house items that aren’t of much use or never get used. A spatula hangs on the inside of one of the walls that has never been used for a grill that had been thrown out years ago. Two non-slip plastic mats hang in the middle of the closet casing and have been for years. An ironing board that hasn’t been touched except to be moved from one spot to another. And a dust pan, two brooms and a Butler that rarely get use.

On top of the underutilized cabinet/closet space is where a good portion of the food we store lives. It’s above eye level and difficult to access without a stepladder. All sorts of cans and bottles of things waiting to be used in no particular order. Scattered about and stacked on top of one another like a jigsaw puzzle.

On the other side of the pantry is a metro rack. If you don’t know what a metro rack is it’s something that is used in the food service industry to store food. Dry goods or dishes are usually kept on these shelves and it’s about 5 1/2 feet tall with 2 1/2 foot deep shelving. And the entire unit is made from a thick gauge chrome wire. Ours is packed with dry goods and appliances that hadn’t even been thought of for a long time.

Next to the metro, on the floor to the left are stacked cases of bottled water and more appliances and dishes that are also collecting dust. If you were alive in the 80’s, it looks like a scene from a Mad Max movie. Items that sometimes got used mixed in with pieces of garbage where someone could hold up and survive some cataclysmic event.

There and then I decided to do something about it. I felt as though living this way was an admission of giving up. Like we had thrown our hands up in frustration and gave in to the chaos. Though I was frustrated, I was unwilling to accept defeat.

I went to architecture school for a semester. At some point in my educational career I thought I would be an architect. On a whim really. It was a very costly impulse decision. But I had little guidance at the time and it seemed like the best option available. There were some useful skills I learned from my stint there. One of the professors said that students often ask him what they’ll be able to do after their first semester or year there. He told us that we’d be able to draw up a blueprint, floor plans for a project. So I got my sketch pad and starting fleshing out ideas for the pantry space.

I came up with a few iterations that I felt would best utilize the space. First, everything needed to be off the ground and preferably at eye level. Next I measured the square footage of useable shelf space we had and compared it to the space we’d be building to make sure we had enough room.

After I had the plans laid out, I showed them to the people I live with. They looked them over, gave me some feedback, things they’d like changed for ease of use. And I created another plan from the newly discussed ideas of how the shelves could be arranged.

It felt as though we were collaborating on a shared sense of space and love of food. We were growing closer by coming together to make our house feel more like a home. There’s also a feeling of ownership that comes with molding the space around you that you use every day.

All of our personalities were cohabitating in the design of the pantry. One person’s practicality in switching the most used shelves closer to the doorway. Another’s love of natural wood shades in the material for the shelves. And me wanting to create the feel of an orchard rack, to store and display fresh veggies from the garden. All of our ideas, tastes and preferences coming together in a place that we use daily. Reminding us of our shared connection.

After we hammered out the plans, I mentioned I was going to be building shelves to a friend of mine and he told me he’s been looking up woodworking videos on Youtube. He recently helped his mother replace some of her shelves. So I asked if he wanted to help and he was pumped about the idea.

We got together to take a look at the space and bounced a few ideas off of each other. He had an idea of how the shelves should be supported and I laid out the spacing and square footage. We went to a local hardware store to price out the materials we needed and later that night I put a budget together for the project.

It took some coordinating to get our schedules to line up but we got there. We chose a day and my friend began the process of gathering the tools we needed for the job. I met my friend in a nearby town, we took a trip to buy the lumber and got started building the shelves.

When we arrived at the house, we made plans on how we were going to prepare and cut the wood to size for the shelving. It was early and we had all day to put the project together so we weren’t rushed. We could take our time. We set up on the front walkway, just outside the front door and got to work on measuring and cutting the pieces.

The project went smoothly from that point on. We put the supports in for the shelving first. Then we cut the boards that were meant to be the shelves down to size and any additional cut outs to fit in the space. We dry fit the shelves and added an extra length of 1×3 to the ends of the shelves to make sure food items didn’t slide off the ends. And it only took one afternoon as opposed to the two days we thought it would take.

There were a few surprises along the way, a few extra measurements we needed to make to allow for some extra bracing we hadn’t planned on. And we had to hand screw some screws from where the closet was too narrow for the drill. But all in all the project was a success.

As we finished up, one of the people who I live with was coming home. So after we cleaned up the tools and scraps, we showed them the new shelves and they were excited. After my friend left, we stood around and talked about the new renovations. We talked about getting my friend a gift card to a local grocery store as a way of saying thank you and to show our gratitude.

We also saved a bunch of money by building the shelves ourselves. They may not be professionally done, but they look good. And we also made plans to scrape, plaster and paint the entire pantry. Something that was started 17 years prior but was left unfinish.

As we were wrapping up our conversation about the shelves someone said that if I ever wanted to invite my friend and his wife over, maybe for dinner or something, that they thought they would enjoy that. This was a shock to hear.

The people I live with have always been a very private bunch. They are not extroverted by any means and the thought of inviting others into our home seemed a foreign idea to me. So hearing them say something to the tune of opening themself to the possibility of a new friendship was a pleasant surprise.

Since building the shelves, I suggested to one of the people I live with that we could sand and paint the entire pantry. Making the space feel brand new. They’ve been in the pantry every day since, sanding and scraping the walls and ceiling getting ready for the day we’ll paint. And they are also picking out the paint colors for the pantry as well.

None of this would be possible if I didn’t take the first step towards making our house feel more like a home. By taking care of the neglected areas of our house, the poorly designed, mess of a pantry and turning it into functional, usable space. Not only functional, but a space where we want to spend time and care for. And that we’ll always remember the time and effort we took to come together to create the sense of feeling at home in our pantry. This is what I mean when I say making a house feel like a home.

There are other projects that need doing as well. In our journey, unfortunately there have been a lot of neglected corners that now need the loving attention turned towards them. There is a long way to go, but it feels a little lighter knowing that there are more people willing to lend a hand. To support each other along the way.

And the shelf project almost didn’t happen at all. As I said above, it took some time to come together. Most of this was due to a communication error between me and the people I live with. We’ve always erred on the side of being polite. We don’t make a lot of waves and we’re quiet and keep to ourselves. So while I was drawing up the plans that I showed to the people I live with, they never gave me a definitive answer on when I’d be able to start the project.

I had already asked my friend for help and was only waiting on the go-ahead. One day I came downstairs into the kitchen while they had been cleaning out some area of the house and I noticed that they had put a bookshelf in the pantry closet. When I asked why it was there, they said they were looking for something to fit in the closet for shelves!

This was confusing as we had already discussed the plans for the shelves. On further inquiry, I found out that they weren’t sure I was still going to build the shelves. It had been a while since we spoke about them and they assumed I had forgotten about it. While in the meantime I was ready to go and only waiting for their okay. So it was a simple miscommunication. We were all a little too polite to ask one another if we were ready to take the next step, stalling the project for 5 months!

A small miscommunication and the shelves almost didn’t happen. This happens often with the people I live with and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. My experience with communicating needs is that I don’t want to be a burden on or feel as though I’m hassling someone by asking too many questions. There’s also a component of not feeling worth the time due to the neglect I’ve endured in the past. But this is also something we all share to some degree.

Maybe not feeling as confident in ourselves as we’d like to. Feeling that our best efforts are somehow not going to be enough. Or worse yet, we put our best efforts forward and somehow get rejected for them. Feeling as though we won’t add up no matter how hard we try. If you’re not used to putting the effort in, your mind will make up all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t even bother.

So be the person who asks too many questions. When in doubt, ask! From my experience people are more than willing to field a few questions. And if it’s for everyone’s benefit why not ask. I’ve gotten in the habit of setting deadlines for when I talk to people. I don’t go too long before following up with someone I’m in the middle of discussing something with. I feel better knowing that there will be some closier on the projects or ideas I’m collaborating on with other.

Look around at the projects you have going on in your life. Are there areas where a friend or family member could step in and help? Are you planning a garden for the first time? Ask around and see if you have anyone in your circle who’s been at it for a while. I find that coming together for a project builds stronger bonds in a relationship. Not only that, but you’ll most likely learn something new while building a shared connection through experiences. So ask the friend for help, put yourself out there. People are generally pretty friendly once you open the door. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Shelving” by Robbi Baba is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A More Sustainable Home: 7 Tips and Tricks to Help Keep Your Space a Little Greener

“More recently I’ve adopted the more sustainable elements of the culture.”

My desire to live a greener life style probably started when I was in high school. It was the mid-nineties and hippy culture was re-emerging as the popular subculture. Though in the 90’s I feel it was more about the drugs and music than it was about free love.

I remember one summer I went to a Phish festival up in Maine with a few friends of mine. The Lemon Wheel in ’98. We chose a spot to camp but unfortunately it was a few spots over from a tent that was selling nitrous balloons. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t played the same 5 or so funk songs on repeat the entire weekend. I never heard “Brick House” so many times in a three day period, nor do I ever want to again :D.

As time passed, I changed in a lot of ways, but I always held onto some of that culture in my personality. I traded the drugs for coffee and it’s most recent iteration tea. But I still bust out the Dead every once and a while and Phish as well.

More recently I’ve adopted the more sustainable elements of the culture. Recycling and buying sustainable goods that will last longer than their plastic counterparts being among them. Also making sure the items I’m buying have a shorter decomposition rate after they’ve run out their usefulness. So it wasn’t long before I started looking around my house to find ways of making the process of keeping to these tenants a little easier.

One of the things I’ve started doing is keeping a recycling bag next to the rubbish barrels I use. I started thinking about it while I was in the bathroom taking a shower. I reached for the face wash or the soap when I looked at the empty bottle of shampoo that had been sitting in the shower caddy for I don’t know how many weeks. My intention was to recycle it. But that meant going downstairs to the kitchen where the recycling is kept. And by the time I got dressed I’d forget to go back into the bathroom to grab the bottle to bring downstairs to be recycled.

So I put a paper bag next to the rubbish in my room and since I’ve found that my recycling fills up much faster than the garbage barrel does. Thinking about it now makes me a little sad to think about all the things I could have been recycling that went to the trash previously. But it’s been nice feeling that I’m not just tossing things in the garbage that could go to recycling because I was too busy to go downstairs.

Second, I’ve been paying closer attention to the fabrics that I’ve been keeping around my house. Instead of fabrics made from synthetic materials, I’ve been buying either 100% wool or cotton to slowly replace what I have such as sheets, blankets, towels and clothing. If you’ve read my post on taking care of your needs for clothing, you’ll know that I shop pretty regularly at thrift stores. But I’ve also been paying attention to the materials that my clothes are made of as well. This post on micro fiber pollution from Friend of the Earth, says that materials such as polyester, rayon and acrylic are a few of the fabrics that are made from plastics.

According to the article one of the main issues with these fabrics is when they’re washed, they release microfibers into the water supply. The fibers are then consumed by sea animals in the food chain. The plastics absorb toxic chemicals from the environment, so who knows what they would do to our bodies. And for me, knowing that my clothing will turn to compost either during, or not long after I’m gone brings me a sense of ease. Knowing that the clothes I bought that are made from plastics will be sitting in landfills for decades makes me a bit uneasy.

Speaking of laundry, the third thing on my sustainable list is making your own soaps. I’ve made soaps in the past using castile soap. Castile soap is a blend of oils and potassium hydroxide (lye), and can be mixed with various other common household ingredients to create household cleaners. Anything from body wash to all purpose cleaners can be made on the cheap from castile. By adding some essential oils to the mix, you can customize your new cleaners to suit your own personal tastes. Putting your own touch on the ways you clean yourself and your space.

The best part is that the ingredients found in castile soap are all natural and have been used for centuries. So there’s no surprises when you pick up a bottle to clean surfaces that you prepare your food on or for use in the shower. Areas that you come in close contact with and the places you use the most. This blog post on Live Simply by Kristin Marr, shows you how to craft your own household cleaners using castile soap.

As well as saving money, you can also cut back on the amount of plastic you’re buying by picking up a few reusable glass bottles to hold your new cleaners in. A quick google search will yield multiple results for spray bottles or despencers for both hand soap or shampoo. Whatever your container needs may be, you’re likely to find it with ease.

The fourth idea is to replace the plastic hangers in your closet with wooden ones. Plastic hangers tend to break and need replacing more often than wooden ones do. And by replacing and recycling your plastic hangers and using wooden hangers, your using a more sustainable material that will be functional a lot longer than their plastic counter parts.

Fifth, I’ve been wearing some of my clothes more than once. Pants mostly and some pajamas, sweatshirts and bandanas (I wear a lot of bandanas.) By wearing some of the same clothes over again, I have fewer clothes to wash which means the time between loads is longer. This saves on soap and water use and not to mention frees up some time you could be doing something else with.

Sixth, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before I burn a lot of candles. I’m burning three as I’m typing this article! I haven’t made the switch yet, but beeswax candles are considered carbon neutral according to this article from alive. Candles are usually made from paraffin wax, which is a byproduct of crude oil. Which means you’re releasing Co2 into the atmosphere when you burn paraffin candles. The carbon in beeswax has been sequestered so recently from the environment, that it’s considered neutral. Plus, beeswax has the added bonus of releasing negative ions into the atmosphere. Which in turn purifies the air of allergens and pollutants.

As I’ve said above, I’ve been in the habit of burning candles at night. The candles I burn now are made of coconut or soy wax. Either when I’m in my room unwinding from the day or cooking dinner at night, I feel they set a relaxing tone as ambient lighting and give everything a softer feel. It’s also something to look forward to. Coming home to a place that has spa vibes, cozy. When I’m having a tough day I can think about my self-care Sundays (Mondays now) and it brings that same sense of ease and calm. So burning bees wax candles brings some sustainable elements to your self-care routine.

The seventh one may make some a little squeamish but I’ve gotten in the habit of not flushing the toilet after going number one. I drink a lot of water and tea through the course of the day, so the amount of times I use the facilities is pretty high. Only flushing after a number two helps to reduce the amount of water that is being flushed into the wastewater treatment system.

The benefits are that you use less water, which translates to a lower water bill, and on the other end there is less waste to process. This saves on energy and resources.

Speaking of water, most people know this tip, but washing your clothes using cool water instead of warm helps to conserve energy that would otherwise go to heating your wash water. Which means you’ll save on your electric bill as well.

I hope some of these suggestions have been useful in some way. It won’t be easy, but together we can change the course of our collected future, one small change at a time. If you have any suggestions or tips you use regularly to help keep your home a little greener, i’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. Thanks for reading 🙂 peace.

Search for a Laundry Basket: What your Environment Tells you About Yourself

I’ve been looking for a laundry basket, two actually, to replace the ones I have currently. The ones I have work, they’re functional in that they hold dirty clothes, but they just don’t sit right with me. I recently bought one of the baskets I’m using and the other is a hand-me-down. But the one I recently bought has since bent in a few places because it’s not the most sturdily designed basket. And the hand-me-down is cracked, dirty and an eye sore.

For a while I was telling myself “they were only laundry baskets, it doesn’t matter what they look like”. But the more I used them, cleaned around them and walked past them, the more I realized they were not only less functional because of how cheaply they were made, but I also feel as though they were saying to me, “are you willing to settle for this? Two cheaply made hampers that you will be looking at for however long it takes for them to break?”

And the answer was a resounding no! So why was I holding on to them when I could replace them with so much ease? The easy answer is, if you’ve read my post on budgeting, you’ll know I’m saving money for an emergency fund. So being frugal was my default, easy out. But the tough answer is that I just didn’t feel like I was worth something better.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me and the sadder it all felt. They were something I looked at everyday and every time I looked at them I felt a little worse that they were there. But I just kept telling myself that they were doing their jobs. Don’t fix what’s not broken. You can make do.

So there they sat. And when I dressed in the morning or evening, I just accepted that I was settling for less. Until I got it in me that they needed replacing. I’m not positive what the final straw was, but by the grace of God, I decided to start searching for new baskets. I’m looking for something sturdy and preferably sustainable, but most importantly, I’m looking for something that makes me feel better about the ways I choose to live my life and what I surround myself with.

As a comparison, one of the first apartments I lived in more resembled a trash heap than a dwelling. I was living in a run down part of town. And I remember one day or maybe it was a week, the trash had piled up so high on the floor that I had to wade through calf high drifts to get to the bathroom. And that’s how I lived my life. Surrounded by piles of garbage.

And my surroundings were definitely a reflection of how I was feeling about myself. Worthless. As though I wasn’t worthy of the time or effort to deserve nicer or more quality things. This was most likely the catalyst for my decision to replace my laundry baskets, but it took a long time to come to that conclusion. It has been 17 years since I lived in that apartment. My house is much cleaner than it used to be and I was still clinging to parts of the past that I no longer needed. So why was I holding on so tight, what was I afraid of?

Well part of the problem was that my experience was a learned one, from my care-givers. Not that either lives in squalor, but they never expressed a sense of inherent self value to, or around me. No doubt they in turn learned from their care-givers as well. So much of their value was based on the things they owned and wore.

So it’s not their fault as they fell into the trap that is perpetuated by the never ending chase to feel accepted and cool. But the message still persisted: I’m not worth the time and effort to take care of myself and my surroundings. I’m willing to settle for less. And it was this mindset that I grew up with, was surrounded by and carried with me into adulthood.

The more we decide to take care of ourselves, replace the broken things in our lives with the things we enjoy, the more we are telling ourselves that we are worth the time, effort and care. We don’t have to just settle for what’s here because it’s working for now and that’s good enough.

And this may seem to run counter to the message of my blog. That buying things will bring you happiness. And in a way, it does. But the act of replacing things that are causing you suffering, or at least some dis-ease with those things that bring joy, seems to me anyway more an act of self-care than setting our values at what we purchase or how we are seen. The more we can enjoy the spaces we dwell in, the greater the ability we have of cultivating a sense of ease, joy and comfort. And these things are important. If they weren’t, places like prisons wouldn’t feel like you were paying a debt to society, it’d be more like a hotel.

This type of settling for less is also another form of self neglect. Settling for less or letting the broken pieces fill up your life until you are surrounded by a life’s time worth of cobbled together pieces of the unuseable is not the way to feel as though you are a whole, dynamic person, worth something or have inherent value.

This is what I am talking about when I say our environment is telling us stories about ourselves. All you need to do is look around the areas of your life where you spend the most amount of time to get a feel for where your self values lay. Are they filled with trinkets that remind you of loved ones or good times? Are they cluttered or disorganized? Do you use or appreciate the things that are in these places or are they just taking up space?

For me, the bedroom, kitchen and living room are the big three where I spend the most amount time. They all have aspects of them I’d like to change and unfortunately I’m not in a position to make the definitive decision on how or when to change them. But regardless, it’s worth the time to take stock of your surroundings and notice, what are the things you’d like to see changed?

As I said, I’m not able to make the changes I’d like to, but I have a list and a few boards on Pinterest where I’ve already planned out what my future living spaces are going to look like. So even if you’re not in a position to make the changes you’d like to, it never hurts to make some some-day plans for when you’re able.

Or if it’s a shared space, bring everybody together that uses the space and find out how they feel about it. Start a discussion about it. Who knows where it could lead. And you’d also be building better, stronger relationships while doing these projects together and healthier communication skills by understanding and attuning to each other’s needs. Getting to know their likes and dislikes and in turn, know them more wholly as a person.

So if you’ve been holding on to something for far too long just because it still works. A chipped glass, broken mug or a shower caddy that’s seen one too many showers, maybe it’s time to ask yourself, “what am I holding onto this for?” Changing your surroundings may help to bring more ease to your day to day life. And in may help to establish a stronger feeling of self-worth and value. Peace, 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Dirty Laundry” by Changhai Travis is licensed under CC BY 2.0