Living Your Life: Self-Care

Self-care is something I’ve written quite a bit about on this blog. And fortunately, there are a bunch of ways to practice it. But finding healthy routines that are sustainable, and not getting caught in the trap of finding what feels good in the moment is a difficult one to navigate. And unfortunately, the more unhealthy habits are something that is usually passed down by those closest to us. There was no class in high-school, when I went anyway, for teaching us how to take care of ourselves and our needs.

This is an unfortunate truth for those of us who didn’t have the support to find out how to practice this skill. It is also at the core of how we grow, and become the best versions of ourselves. That’s why I go over it so frequently in this blog. Because I believe the more we take care of ourselves, the better we our at taking care of our environment. Immediate, but also globally. In this post, I’ll be taking a look at some of the ways I practiced unsustainable self-care, and the healthier habits I’ve picked up in their stead.

I think the first way I learned how to practice self care was by playing video games and watching T.V.. These aren’t inherently bad habits in anyway, but they are ones that I definitely used in unhealthy ways. I was using them, video games especially, to dull my senses. To “zone out” my surroundings so I didn’t have to interact, be a part of what was happening to, and around me. But I was also introduced to video games shortly before some traumatic events in my past took place. So in a way I was playing them to escape the chaos of what was happening in my life. It was a defense mechanism.

But they were something that I did for decades of my life, to avoid those closest to me. I was well into my thirties and still playing games like World of Warcraft for hours a day. If I had gotten a second job and worked as many hours as I played, I’d have a healthy retirement fund by now. It also took a toll on my marriage as well. I was spending more time with a video game than with connecting with my then wife. This makes me sad to think about, but I also recognize that I was still in protection mode. I still hadn’t realize that I wasn’t able to trust those closest to me, and that I was perpetuating the cycles of my past. Looking back, there was a lot of pain that wasn’t being recognized or even known about, first by me, then by everybody I was pushing away with an arrogant disposition.

But that’s the nature of what happens after we experience trauma. We go into shock and dissociate. I was definitely dissociated from all of my emotions, save for the very strong ones such as pain and anxiety. The times I wasn’t feeling these emotions, I was doing whatever I could to numb myself incase they came rushing back in. T.V. is another good example of dissociation in my case. I spent so many hours of watching others live their lives out on the screen, only to avoid what was happening to and around me. Another way for me to zone out, aka dissociate.

But again, I was still only trying to protect myself, the best ways I knew how at the time. Using this method, I could still be around those closest to me, without actually having to connect with them in a meaningful way. I could be around them, and keep up the appearance of being a functioning member of my community, while still keeping largely to myself.

And the same was true of alcohol and medication. For me, being numb was safer than being present. This was because there were so many ways I was afraid of being hurt.

But all the while, using all the different modalities I could find to dissociate, I was really seeking to numb the fear of being with those closest to me, but also with myself. The relationship I was most frightened of was of being with myself, and the ways I had picked up the habits and ways of abusing myself, in the same manner I saw my caregivers abuse themselves, but also the ways they in turn abused me. Like a cursed family heirloom being handed down from one generation to the next.

And all the while, while I was avoiding and numbing my relationships and my feelings, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t building the most important relationship, with myself. I had no idea outside of alcohol, video games and T.V., what brought me a sense of joy. I had no idea what I liked as a way to treat myself asides from using unsustainable methods and just plain hiding from my feelings and other people. This was kind of a shock when I realized how disconnected I was from who I am.

Luckily I wasn’t completely in the dark and without any resources. I knew that I liked music. Still a great source of comfort for me. Also one that has been there for me, in one form or another, for most all of my life. I can remember the first time I ever heard and loved a piece of music. I was probably not more than four or five, and I had just gotten my first alarm clock. Not that I had anywhere to be back then, but I remember scanning the stations and exploring my new device. I came across a piece of classical music and was mesmerized. The violins in particular were what stuck out to me. From that day on I knew I loved music.

But it was exactly these types of memories, this type of intimacy with myself that I had lost or forgotten. The moments of, “I enjoy this, this makes me happy”, was something I had lost touch with shortly after my trauma and then again when I was actively seeking to numb myself with whatever was easy. Aka, video games, T.V., drinking and medication. These were definitely not easy places to inhabit emotionally. And I usually felt as though there were some unattended emotions just waiting around the corner.

And there were. Lots of them. I still hadn’t dealt with the feelings and emotions from my abuse and the trauma I endured. How could I have when I was actively seeking to numb them for so long! So it wasn’t until I stopped doing those things that were keeping my emotions at bay that I truly began to feel, and understand the emotional life I was leaving unattended.

I first started with lessening my alcohol consumption. This was a difficult task, seeing as how I was drinking five to six drinks a night, just to wind down. But I did, and I’ve felt healthier ever since. I’ve replaced my nightly beers or mixed drinks with a few cups of herbal tea. This way I can relax and unwind without being intoxicated. I can stay present in the moment instead of zoning out.

It’s important to remember too, that this is a big transition. Or it was for me. I sometimes feel as though I’m drinking too much tea. This is where it is important to reality check myself. Having three, sometimes four cups of herbal tea is not the same as having four mixed drinks. I like to think of this part of me as Freud’s classic super-ego. This is also incidentally the part of me that is a perfectionist. The one that sets unreasonable standards and then will beat me up for not achieving them. This can be dangerous if left unchecked.

I’ve also been eating healthier overall, and leaving one night a week where I plan and make a special meal for myself to wrap up my work week. This way I am eating healthier foods and making healthier nutritional decisions, while also treating myself to something tasty that I am looking forward to making during the week. I also plan some sort of dessert into my special meal. So I feel as though it is a little break from the norm.

When I was drinking as much alcohol as I was at night, I was 50 to 60 pounds overweight. And the food I was eating was definitely not thought through in regards to their nutritional values. I was overweight and felt unhealthy most of the time. So the time I spend now on taking care to nourish myself brings me a sense of ease. One where I’m looking out for my health, but also finding foods I enjoy cooking and eating and that taste phenomenal as well. It’s nice to know that I don’t have to sacrifice the things I like to take care of my needs.

Yoga is another way I incorporate self-care into my routine. With the amount of T.V. and video games I watched and played, I needed to get my body moving, and reconnect with the parts of me that had been stagnant for far too long. And it’s worth mentioning that it took me a while to figure out a routine that was healthy, yet took care of my need to move and connect with my body in a healthy way.

For example, when I first started doing yoga, I was going to two 60 minute classes a week on top of running 10 to 20 miles as well. My workout routine has evolved from then and until recently I was working out three days in a row, two yoga and one run day without a rest inbetween. My cycle was three days on, four days off. This was okay, but it left me feeling depleted, drained. I enjoyed the workouts but the intensity of doing it all in one block was too much. Again with the super-ego : )

I’ve since switched to a workout every other day, with two days off in a row at the end of my week. This way I have a chance to relax a little between workouts, while also not feeling as tired on a workout day. I also look forward to my workouts more often now. Knowing that I’m taking care of my need to rest between workouts is a huge step towards me being able to listen to and care for what my needs are, all the while learning how to listen to what my body is telling me.

I’ve also been paying attention to what my body needs for rest more frequently as well. I used to stay up late, and for no real reason other than I wanted to watch more T.V.. I was usually idly wasting time, doing and gaining nothing from the extra energy I was expending doing nothing. I now go to bed when I’m tired, or at least recognize when I am tired without trying to cover over those feelings with alcohol or caffeine. It’s amazing what your body will tell you when you’re not trying to drown out its messages with something to get in the way of listening.

Another way I’ve been trying to implement some self-care into my routine is in an unlikely place but one that needs some attention nonetheless. My budget. I got into a lot of debt when I was in my twenties and thirties. Credit cards, student loans, if it was money someone was willing to lend me, I was willing to take it. Now that I’ve been paying off my debt, I’ve kicked it into overdrive and have been going hard. Again with the Super-Ego.

I picked up a second job and am funneliung all available funds towards my debt, via the Dave Ramsey method to get out of debt and live your life. I was going so far as to not buy a cup of tea or coffee on the mornings I was working 18 hour days including a three hour commute! This was a bit much.

You’ll be happy to know that I now buy myself a tea once and awhile, but I also plan on budgeting a treat for myself while I’m paying back my debt. I plan on treating myself to a massage for every 10k I pay off in loans. This way I’m still focused on my goals, but also have something to look forward to while I’m in the midsts of working two jobs and doubles. This can be stressful incase you’ve never been in this boat : D But also necessary to keep some balance and not feel completely burnt out.

These are a few of the routines I’ve developed in helping to live a healthier, more balanced life. I’ve stopped watching T.V. almost completely, but plan on watching some as I don’t want my super-ego to get out of hand in this area either. Having healthy habits isn’t always easy, but it’s possible and rewarding. So if there is something that you feel you’ve been leaning on too much, maybe try replacing some of it with a healthier habit.

Exercise is a good one to start with because a lot of what you need to start is free or cheap. Yoga with Adriene is a great resource if you’ve been thinking of yoga as an outlet. And if running is something that’s piqued your interests, all you need is a pair of shoes. And remember, you don’t have to make major changes all at once! Living a healthy life takes time and practice. Don’t give into the super-ego : ) Take your time and you’ll be in good shape. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Juicy Mountain Retreat (Göcek, Turkiye 2018)” by paularps is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Living Your Life: Nutrition and Your Health

Healthy eating. This was something I struggled with for a long time. I’ve written about my experience in other posts on this blog. The road to healthy eating habits has not been an easy one. It all started when I was very young. I was raised on hamburger, rice and ketchup, with the occasional trip to McDonalds. We also ate at our local pizza shop quite a bit. Fried and fatty foods were mainstays in my diet as a child as well as sugary sodas and drinks. There were few whole foods and leafy greens found on my younger self’s menu.

It’s not as though I was seeking out healthy versions of the foods I was eating either. If I had any money, I would most likely be at the corner store buying candy bars and soda. But I was also too young to be making informed decisions about what my diet should look like. I definitely needed some guidance in that department. And in my caretakers defence, they did the best with what they had. There was always some type of meat at dinner, with a starch and a vegetable. But asides from providing us with the basics at meal time, this was the extent of my nutritional knowledge.

As for meals other than dinner, I was pretty much on my own. There was soda to drink, but I never remember being shown how to make or prepare breakfast or lunch for myself. Or even if there were things to make these meals with. I was clueless when it came to pretty much all things domestic, and the one time I tried to take food from the freezer to make something I was grounded for using something intended for another meal. I didn’t know there was a plan, let alone that I was supposed to adhere to it. These were confusing messages to be surrounded by as a child for sure.

So under these conditions, it’s no surprise that I was never shown how to cook meals for myself. Fast forward to my late teen years and I’m on my own, living in an all but empty apartment, with a fridge whose sole purpose I believed was to hold 40s. There were few if any meals cooked in the first few apartments I lived in, but there was loads of drinking and, surprise surprise, more fatty takeout. The two behaviours that were modeled for me in my youth. I also worked at a Mexican/Asian fusion, takeout place where the head chef was using Northern Indian cooking techniques to prepare the food. This was where I was blessed enough to begin to learn how to cook for myself. Though I didn’t realize it at the time. But more on that later.

Time moved on, I got married and was taking the long way around to getting a degree I would later have no idea what to do with. And I was still almost completely in the dark on how to take care of my nutritional needs. I was still drinking loads of beer, and eating takeout maybe four times a week! We never had any money because we were spending it all on eating out, while our refrigerator was mostly used to keep beer and leftovers cold.

I feel like if you don’t have your food situation down by the time you’re in your early thirties, someone should pull you aside and send you to a special program on the things you should have learned by now! This however, is sadly not the case. I was in my early thirties, married, had been working in the food industry for most of my adult life, and I still had no idea how to cook for myself, or take care of my nutritional needs.

If I stop to think about it too much, it scares me a little. Who knows where I would be had I kept on the same path I was heading down. But luckily for me, things did change. Unfortunately, my marriage ended, and I was jettisoned into a life where I needed to focus on what was most important. And for a while, those were the skills I needed to survive. I began cooking and meal planning for myself, the first time I had ever attempted such a task.

I was still eating meat at the time, and this is when I had started buying and roasting whole chickens and using the meat throughout the week for various meals. This is one of the few things I miss about eating meat on occasion. It’s also surprising how many meals you can get out of a four pound chicken! This is also about the same time I started to really focus on my budget, and how much I was spending on groceries. I learned a lot of life lessons shortly after my divorce. But they were already on their way, and had been coming for some time. I had just been avoiding them for a very long time.

But with these roasts, was the beginning of my meal planning. I remember watching an episode of “Extreme Couponing” and being fascinated by the idea that you could be paid to do something that you needed to do to survive. The organizing and planning part of my brain lighted up, and this is where my organizational skills met my culinary abilities. I have yet to attempt an extreme coupon go, but it’s still on my bucket list : )

I had a dog at the time too, so I was coming up with a plan to not only take care of myself, but also the woman I was with as well as our dog. It was motivating knowing that I was taking care of something more than myself. But when my relationship eventually failed, I was left by myself again, to focus on the relationship I had been neglecting the most, the one with myself.

But now, at least I had some of the basics down. I was cooking for myself now, and doing my own grocery shopping. These were big steps in leaning to take care of my nutritional needs. I was starting from zero too, so any progress was welcome. This was around the time I chose to go vegan. Thinking back on the decision now, I’m glad I chose the meatless route, but I did make the decision almost on an impulse.

Had I to do it over again, I would have done more research on the choice. As I’ve said, I’m happy I made the decision, but I would have taken care to look up how to hit nutritional goals. I went to the Boston Vegetarian Festival and heard Dr. Colin T. Campbell give a talk about how eating meat is most likely linked to many types of cancers, and I went full vegan then. I also read that eating a plant based diet will regulate your body weight due to the nature of eating healthy whole foods with the optimal ratio of fiber to carbs to proteins to fats. Both these seemed like goals I was willing to get behind, and made making the switch that much more focused.

As I said, at first I went full vegan. But as I started living my new lifestyle, I found that it took a great strength of will to adhere to this diet. I slowly started eating dairy again but in moderation. I still mostly cook vegan for myself but will eat vegetarian when I’m at a restaurant or out. Mostly because it’s difficult to find vegan foods when I’m out. And this is how I’ve been eating ever since.

I find that my appetite isn’t as big as it used to be before, when I was eating more unhealthfully. I mostly buy and prepare whole food meals, my weight is in a healthy range, and I eat more frequently. And with all these changes I’ve made to my diet, I feel better about myself. I have more energy and my weight has been as consistent as it has ever been. And coming from where I was, with absolutely no idea how to care for my nutritional needs, this is a complete 180. And it feels good : ) So let’s take a look at how I got there.

I started by changing the ways I was shopping for food. When I used to go food shopping, I would buy what I thought I would make during the week. I didn’t really have a plan, just a list of things I knew I liked, and a few recipes I made when I would cook. Recipes like black bean soup or a chicken curry that I made mostly because I didn’t know what else to eat or make. This left me with cabinets full of food I never used. So, I started using the ingredients I had on hand.

If you’ve read my post on “shopping from your pantry first“, you’ll know I started looking up recipes that utilized the ingredients I already have on hand first. I would just head over to my favorite recipe site, and type in the main ingredient I wanted to use in the search bar. I would do this for a few items in my pantry, and come up with a shopping list based around these recipes I had planned to make for the week. Not only did I save money from using up what was on hand, but I was also planning my shopping trips according to what I needed for the week and staying in budget most of the time. Win win.

My plan for the week usually consists of, looking through my pantry to find items that have been sitting around for a little too long and round up two or three recipes that utilize these ingredients. I also pick a self-care Sunday dinner for the week. This is something that is usually a break from the norm. And something that gives me a chance to explore new flavors and recipes to maybe put into rotation. Speaking of, I also have a list of standby recipes that I make fairly often. So if I’m looking for inspiration I can take a quick look at my list and add them to the meal prep plan.

I also try to utilize as much produce as possible from the garden. If kale is coming in then I make some curried greens as a side that week. This way I’m eating as fresh as possible as well. When all my recipes and groceries are gathered for the weeks meals, I pick a night and cook for the week ahead. I’ve been working in food for a while so meal prepping is something that is second nature. But it is completely doable if you are just starting out on learning how to cook for yourself.

I like to make the setting more comfortable by lighting a scented candle and turning down the lights. This brings a relaxing air to the process, which can be stressful if you aren’t used to spinning so many plates at once. Even if you are, it can still be stressful! The key is to take it slow. I try to cook one recipe at a time, so I’m not piling up too much on myself at once. It may take the entire night, but I’d rather take my time in a relaxed setting with dimmed lights, a scented candle burning and a cup of herbal tea than try to cram three recipes into the space of 45 minutes with all four burners going and something in the oven! Life can be overwhelming enough, no need to put ourselves through that kind of stress ; )

As far as macronutrients go, I don’t count my calories. I know a majority of my protein comes from grains, beans, pasta, nuts, seeds and tofu. My carbs come mostly from, well just about everything I eat since everything that is grown has carbs to some degree. And my fats usually come from oils, nuts, seeds and avos. Here I intuitively eat what I feel is right. I’ll usually have overnight oats for breakfast with maybe a muffin or cheese snail at work (if you haven’t had a cheese snail, do yourself a favor and go get one. The are delicious), beans, avo and rice for lunch and a curry or some type of buddha bowl, which is just a mix of vegetables and grains usually topped with a sauce, for dinner.

All of these meals are super easy to meal prep at the beginning of the week. I usually have the recipes open in tabs on my browser, so when I’m ready to start cooking, I have my recipes at hand and waiting. All I need to do is pack up my breakfast the night before for the morning to come, dish out dinner that night and I’m done. Easy peasy.

But it’s not always easy to find places to eat that are healthy while you’re out. Eating out can be a challenge. I try to get foods that are as close to whole as possible. This means protein bars made mostly from nuts and a little sugar. Maybe a burrito when I’m out with tofu, veges, rice and beans. Once you know what to look for, it gets a little easier to find things to eat.

And that my friends, is how I made the transition from unhealthy eating habits, to healthful ones. And it takes some will power. But once you make the change, the foods you’ll be cooking are so much tastier than their processed, fatty counter parts that you’ll wonder why you ever used to eat them in the first place!

If you’re trying to make the change to a healthier lifestyle by changing your eating habits, know that it is doable. You just need to put the work in. It is not easy at first. There are a lot of adjustments to make and depending on how unhealthy your habits were before, a steep learning curve. But be patient with yourself. The longer you keep after it, the easier and better your food will taste. This is where I leave you amigos. If you’re looking for some inspiration, head over to Minimalist Baker’s site to help get you started. I’m eating this Green Curry and Chickpea recipe right now with some greens. And as always, peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Nutrition • Vegetables • Peas” by Living Fitness UK is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 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

Expiration Dates: Rotating your food stores to eat as fresh as possible

We all have that can of tomatoes that has been in the back of the cupboard for way too long. The one that has seen one too many a day in the back of the cabinet while a few other staples get rotated in and out of use. This has been the case with my cabinets for quite some time. If you’ve read my post on “Building Shelves, Building Community“, you’ll know that when I was cleaning through my parents food pantry, I was throwing away food items that were over half a decade old! Some of it was an issue with ease of access for sure, but there was more to it than not being able to see behind a can of peas or a bag of pasta.

For us, it is food insecurity on some level. We need to feel as though we have enough food to last us a few months in order to feel safe enough. But safe enough for what? For me, it was from roaming around my childhood home, looking for something to eat that was quick easy and loaded with sugar. Not because I was lazy, though I played my fair share of video games. But mostly because I just didn’t have the life skills to be able to provide for myself in ways related to my nutritional needs.

In later years, my cabinets would be filled with foods I could make meals with. Ingredients to have on hand to make something to eat whenever I needed to. I almost never ate vegetables and most of what I did eat was either meat, or some form of starch and fat mixed with a sugary sauce. I was unhealthy, overweight and pretty unhappy overall. Food in general was a mystery to me and something I wasn’t given any direction on how to approach or prepare for myself.

And this was how I ate for years. Save for my later teen years and early twenties where I soley ate takeout in some form or another. My habits were unhealthy, and I had no idea how to take care of my nutritional needs. And that wasn’t including the large amounts of beer I was consuming on a nightly basis. And it’s ironic because I had worked in the food industry for most of my life. This was, I think, a way to feel as though I was always covered when it came to food and feeding myself. I needed the security of being constantly surrounded by it in order to feel as though my needs would be taken care of. But that was the key, I felt as though I needed to be taken care of.

Instead of caring for myself and my nutritional needs, I passed that job onto whomever I was living with at the time. As far as I was concerned, that was someone else’s job. I’ve since come to realize that I was just reliving the patterns of my past by looking for someone else to do the job that I was never taught how to do. And it wasn’t until I went vegan (vegetarian now and am thinking about pescitarian) about five years ago that I really started to learn what it means to take care of myself in regards to nutrition and food. But it all stemmed from a major food insecurity.

And this is an insecurity that still persists even though I’ve wholly changed almost every aspect of my diet. Some of the reason for me changing was due to being called a “human garbage disposal” by my caregivers for the better part of my childhood. But I also did it for the health benefits. I read that if you eat a vegan diet you maintain a certain body fat percentage. And sense I was likened to a garbage disposal for the better part of my youth, I thought this was a perfect solution and path to finally feeling accepted for my physical appearance.

But I was still collecting foods, dried beans, grains and other items such as flours, oils and teas, that were taking up a large amount of space in my cabinets. And they held residency for long stretches of time as well. Without a plan for their ever being used, they sat there to collect dust. It felt like I was holding onto food for the sake of holding onto it. I had no plan or purpose for it other than to look at it every time I opened the cabinets and to feel like my shelves were full of food. I was safe.

It was a strange feeling when I realized what I had been doing. The lack of knowledge of what to do with what I did have, due to the neglect in my early domestic education. There were no family recipes handed down, no helping to cook family meals or the basic understanding of how to grocery shop for myself. No following a list, made from recipes that I was going to cook and only shopping from that list of planned menu items. I was left in a lonely place, without any direction on how to move myself forward.

I remember when I first understood that taking care of my nutritional needs is something that is an important aspect of life. I was living with a woman who I was deeply smitten with, though she was in the same emotional place that I was. We both had no understanding of how to take care of our personal and physical needs. However, I was left a legacy of being shown how to take care of others at the expense of my own needs. So it was only natural that I take care of her as though she were my charge. As unhealthy as it was for me at the time, this was the catalyst for me to learn how to care of my own needs, while caretaking for another.

I drove her and her family to doctors appointments. Ran errands for her, all kinds. Cleaned our apartment weekly which was quite the feat, living with three other people, two cats and a dog. But it was when I was grocery shopping and cooking all our meals for us that I really began to understand what it means to take responsibility for our nutritional needs.

I would buy and roast whole chickens, to eat the night of and also for future meals. I went to the grocery store with a plan and a list and came in under or at budget. I had even thought about opening a brewpub with her, and had gone as far as to start planning what would be on the menu. It was an exciting time, full of possibility for our future. Unfortunately I was mostly focused on how to take care of someone else, not myself. But it was also this time that I spent taking care of another that later gave me the confidence to finally take my own needs into account.

After the woman I was taking care of had left me, I was left alone. This was when I turned my focus inwards on how to care for myself. Unfortunately, this was something I had no experience doing. As I mentioned above, these were not tools and resources that were modeled for me in my youth. But I managed. When it came to my nutritional needs, I looked for and researched recipes to build a small clutch of foods and meals I knew that I liked. And finding out what I liked was definitely a big step toward learning how to take care of myself.

Knowing that I’d enjoy the food I was cooking for myself made meal prep something to look forward to. And the more I cooked these staple recipes, the better I became at it. This had the added benefit of building my confidence in being able to have a sense of mastery over the ways I was taking care of myself.

Also, my self-care sunday meals became a resource for me as well. This was a time where I would select a new recipe, something that looked interesting and branch out a little from my usual go tos. Trying new foods and recipes, being creative in the kitchen and liking what I was making. And later adding these recipes to my meal rotation helped to keep some variety in my diet and meals.

I was also using fresh vegetables from my garden as well. This brought a feeling of each meal being special. Eating the freshest possible produce while cooking meals that I curated specifically for my taste was something that gave me a sense of really being able to take control of my ability to take care of myself and my needs.

While I was learning my new skills in self-care, I was also friends with another woman who had given me a book called, “The China Study”. The premise of the book was that most cancers are linked in some way to the consumption of animal protein and the lack of plant based foods in our modern diets. After I read the book, and after I went to the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival and read that a vegan diet would help to maintain a healthy percentage of body fat to muscle, I went full vegan.

I didn’t try to take meat out of my diet a little at a time and replace it with plant based options. I jumped in with both feet. Looking back now, this wasn’t the best decision. After going full vegan, I was still feeding myself the same ways I was when I was eating meat and many more calories, without replacing them elsewhere in my diet.

I would often skip breakfast and lunch, having only small pieces of whatever was leftover or extra pastries at work that weren’t vegan. I was mainly restricting what I was eating because I was trying to stay true to the vegan ethos, but this was not a sustainable way to live. I still hadn’t gotten to the place where I was cooking and bringing my own breakfasts and lunches with me to work. That is when I was eating some foods that were vegetarian instead of full vegan and not much food at all.

I knew something was wrong with how I was feeding myself when; one day I had woken at 5am for work, worked a full shift in front of an oven, came home and immediately ran three miles all on only a few cups of green tea. When I got out of the shower at 4pm, and stood up after drying my feet, I passed out on the bathroom floor. Luckily I wasn’t hurt too badly, but I realized then that something needed to change.

This was the time that I decided that I needed to really focus on getting not only healthy foods into my body, but that I also needed to get them into my body as a priority! This is what was so dangerous about the legacy of neglect that was handed down to me. Mostly because I didn’t come to this conclusion, that I needed to eat three and not one meal a day, on my own. Those closest to me had to tell me that they were concerned with the ways that I wasn’t taking care of myself and my nutritional needs. It was only then that I realized that, yes, skipping two meals is unhealthy and that I also needed to make and bring my meals with me to work, otherwise I would end up skipping lunch and breakfast.

So this has been my journey thus far in concerns to taking care of my nutritional needs. It’s been a bumpy road and the journey isn’t over yet. I’ve begun making both breakfast and lunch as part of my meal prep routine. I usually make a large batch of dry oats with nuts, seeds and dried fruits and berries to make overnight oats with the nights before I work. And I’ll usually make a large batch of something like chickpea “tuna” salad for quick lunches throughout the week.

But when I was going to the grocery store, and then my pantry, I was realizing that I was buying food I already had. For example, I would buy dried chickpeas to make chickpea “tuna” salad, but would already have a quart container of dried chickpeas sitting on my shelf in my pantry. So as I was buying new ingredients, the food I already had was just sitting on the shelf, waiting for it’s turn to be used, but never came.

About two years ago I started storing my dried goods in quart sized Ball Jars. The idea was to use what was on the shelf in the jars first, then refill with what I had left in storage. Only I was buying more ingredients that I seldom if ever use. And they were taking up storage space on the shelves instead of being put into rotation to be cooked in recipes for the week. So instead of having a jar that was constantly being filled with AP flour, I had two or three jars half filled with flours I never use, like quinoa or chickpea, but got for a recipe I made once.

Looking at the shelf with a fresh pair of eyes, I could see the items I purchased for specific meals and never used again. The jar full of shredded dulse seaweed I used to top a buddha bowl I made, then completely forgot that I had it. Or the cous cous I never got around to making.

Now that I’ve identified the issue, I’m working to resolve it. This is an old bit of wisdom that I’m not sure where I’ve heard, but now when I put a meal plan together for the week, I shop from my pantry first. I go into my stores and see what I have or have had for too long and research recipes around those ingredients. I then build my shopping list from there.

For instance, I had half a jar of dried lima beans that I’m not sure how long I’ve had them in my pantry. So I looked up recipes that use limas, which in this case happened to be succotash. Then I added the ingredients I didn’t have to the shopping list. I did the same for a jar full of great northern white beans and used up a quart of breadcrumbs that have been cooped up for a bit too long.

My new goal is to have a steady rotation of fresh ingredients that I use frequently, so I always have a fresh store of whatever I need to replace what I use. To eat as fresh as possible. This way, I’m more aware of the ingredients I’m using and I have very little waste when it comes to left over items. And it feels good knowing that I’ve used up items that were otherwise sitting around without any intention of being used.

It’s also worth mentioning that this is not an easy task either. It takes a lot of research, planning, budgeting and cooking knowledge to make this come together in a way that’s manageable and effective. So if you run into roadblocks on your path, don’t be discouraged! Or maybe you know someone who takes care of these responsibilities in your life. Ask them if they need a hand. Because they are most likely juggling a lot of responsibilities, trying to get dinner on the table!

It can seem overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to change everything all at once. Start slow. Say you have seven or eight boxes of pasta collecting in a corner of your cabinet. Start here. Find out what you have, and research recipes utilizing these ingredients. If you have lasagna noodles, this is a no-brainer. Look up recipes for lasagna. Once you find one that looks good, check for other ingredients in the recipe, first in your pantry and fridge, then put what you need on your shopping list.

Pick two or three ingredients a week from your pantry. This way you can utilize your old ingredients slowly, while also deciding if it’s an ingredient you want to keep on hand in your pantry, depending on how you feel about what you make. And it’s easy to add new ingredients as you go. Just pick a new recipe and whatever the new addition to your pantry. Just make sure you have a plan for it in future meals.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. I find that the more I take an active role in rotating and using the foods that I already have, the more comfort I feel from knowing that I’m eating as fresh as I’m able using the ingredients consistently while also caring for a part of myself that has been neglected for way too long. And life’s too short to not feel good about what you eat. We literally eat everyday, multiple times a day! If you’re looking for some new recipes to try out, I’m a huge fan of Minimalist Baker. This Rawsome Vegan Life has some good recipes too. Thanks for reading, bon appetit and peace : )

Image Credits: “What hides in my cupboard” by WordRidden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Choosing to be Vegan: How Eating Veg Helps Keep our World a Little Greener

I went vegan a few years ago, probably around 2015. I’m not going to lie, what got me interested in the first place was I heard that if you eat a plant based diet, your body will naturally maintain a certain body fat percent. Lowering your overall weight. I weigh less now than I did before going vegan, but it most likely has as much to do with my healthier lifestyle. More exercise and better portion control than going vegan. And thanks to going vegan, my eating habits and the quality of the foods I eat have greatly increased, which is a bonus.

Since changing my diet, I’ve become much more interested in how the food I’m eating, gets to my plate, and the ramifications of how it’s produced, effects our environment. I’ve kept a vegetable garden on and off for about 15 years, and while it helps to keep the food miles down on some of the veg I eat, I first fell in love with gardening when I was a child, watching my dad tend to his small plot in a local community garden. Running through the rows of flowering vegetable plants, that my father and his neighbors were growing on cool summer nights seems idealick now, but I imagine if I could somehow revisit those gardens of my mind today, my memories would not disappoint.

There was something about so much diversity in such a small space that made everything feel so rich and alive, vibrant. It brings to mind the ways we used to farm our crops, the way Monticello may have looked in its prime.

I’ve also recently viewed a few documentaries on farming that got my imagination working, but also sparked some fear as well. The first doc was “The Biggest Little Farm”, and it was about a couple’s vision to start a sustainable, diverse farm using organic farming practices and methods. The second was “Kiss the Ground”, and it talked about the need to change the ways we farm in order to help reverse the effects of climate change by fixing Co2 back into the soil, and reversing the desertification that is currently happening, due to the monocultures we’ve been cultivating in big agriculture.

The premise, or main take away from ” Kiss the Ground” is that there are only 60 harvests left, using the methods and farming the crops we’ve been utilizing, i.e., corn, soy and wheat, before we turn the once fertile soils of our country’s, and others in the global community’s, into desolate piles of unworkable dirt. Spark fear here.

Now the food system has been broken for a long time, that’s nothing new. With the crops we’re growing, and the health and environmental consequences they are causing, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes with the over consumption of processed monoculture crops, and the deforestation of the rainforest in the Amazon for farm land, directly contributing to the increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, it’s easy to see that we’re doing something questionable at best.

The outlook seems pretty bleak, and with President Trump pulling America out of The Paris Agreement, it seems as though we’re collectively taking a slow step back when we should be focused on moving forward, toward a common goal for the benefit of our collective future. So where do we go from here?

It seems the most pressing matter, according to “Kiss the Ground” is repairing our soil. With roughly 60 years left before we’re unable to feed ourselves the ways we have been, or at all, that just seems like a no brainer. And if we switch to organic farming practices, while diversifying our crops, we’ll not only be working to solve some of our environmental issues by fixing more Co2 back in the soil, but we’ll also have the option to be eating healthier.

If we focus on smaller scale farming with more diverse crops, woven in and throughout our communities, we can eat in season, with fresher produce, reduce food miles and maybe even close some of the gaps in the food deserts we’ve created. The government already subsidizes commercial farming, so it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to take some of the economic principles we’re already practicing and apply them to more localized and smaller setting, and maybe even create a surplus, and with it food security for our communities.

That’s a lot to take on as an individual, or even as a modest sized community. For something like the plan above to work, we’d need a lot of support, locally and from the global community. But there are some things that we can do as individuals that will help move us in the healing direction. Voting with your dollars is a good place to start.

When food shopping, opt for foods and goods produced locally, and grown organically, as opposed to buying larger brand names that have been most likely grown unsustainably and shipped in from halfway around the globe. Shop at farmers markets and buy more fruits and vegetables, dried beans and grains, whole foods, instead of processed monoculture foods like soy, wheat and corn. And that’s not to say that all soy, wheat and corn are bad. There are few things I enjoy more than a fresh ear of corn in the summer, with a little salt and margarine. The important thing to keep in mind when buying these products is how they were farmed.

And it’s cheaper than you think. I live in a suburb of Boston, so I know about the high cost of living when it comes to the basics. But even living in Massachusetts, if you’re buying mostly vegetables and grains, it’s not difficult to keep your grocery budget to a reasonable price (I aim for 300$ a month but usually go over by about 50$) and that’s with buying organic and local options when possible. You don’t have to go vegan, though you would save a bunch of money. Try having one or two dinners a week without meat. You may be surprised with how much you enjoy the break from the usual. Check out Minimalist Baker for some plant based options.

This is where I’ll leave you reader. Nothing I’ve said here hasn’t been said before, but I hope it helps you to maybe think about our collective situation with a little more agency, to get involved in the ways your able to help us heal and move forward towards a healthier future. I’ll be posting more on this subject too, as I feel living sustainably is definitely linked to a better quality of life and peace of mind. Peace, and thanks for reading :]