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

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

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

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

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

The Basic Elements Of A Cozy Home Start In The Kitchen

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

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

Clean, Not Sterile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My cutting board after some much needed maintenance.

How Organized Are You? It Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Rotating Your Stock to Stay Organized, Fresher Is Better

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Hygge, Bringing It All Together

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Care: How We Treat Our Pantry and How It’s Related to the Ways We Nourish Ourselves

As I mentioned in last weeks post about neglecting our needs for clothing, I have been going through a lot of areas in my life that have been neglected for far too long. The kitchen pantry and how I nourish myself being one of them. And it’s one that is packed with loads of unattended and badly neglected feelings. Food is difficult for many, seeing how it is so closely connected with our survival.

Lessons on How to Nourish Were Not Priority

The environment I grew up in was one filled with many conflicting messages about how to nourish myself. And food was a source of great confusion. As I’ve said before, my care-giver’s focus was on how we looked. How we were seen was priority number one to them. So along with wearing the right thing, we also needed to look the part. And to my family this meant being thin. It wasn’t until very recently that I’ve gotten to my “desired weight”. Or the one that would be approved of by my care-givers. It’s ironic because looking thin is no longer a top priority for me. My goals now are to be at a healthy weight through diet and exercise.

Learning Difficult Lessons From Family

But how they went about showing me that being thin was a priority was what was most confusing. One of my care-givers offered me money to lose weight. I believe the arrangement was 40 dollars to get to my ideal weight. And I couldn’t have been more than twelve at the time, so I agreed. I wanted the money for sure, but also the opportunity to please them. To feel loved and accepted, whatever the cost, by my care-givers.

What was most confusing about this task was, that I was given no direction on how to change my habits. And what was more confusing was that I was being fed by them as well. I had no idea what to do to lose weight or how to acquire the resources to get me to what seemed like an impossible goal on my own. So I felt like a failure. This was a huge blow to my confidence and one I’ve carried with me for a long time.

And to add to the confusion, instead of being shown the resources and support to achieve my goal, I was ridiculed for my weight. I was called a “human garbage disposal” while my entire family laughed at my expense.

Mixed Messages and More Confusion

Another layer of confusion was when I told my care-givers I was hungry they would almost always reply with, “there’s a fridge full of food in the kitchen”. That wasn’t untrue, but I had no idea how to cook or prepare meals for myself. And the extent of my culinary abilities lie in being able to open a box of cereal or bottle of soda. No one was around to show me how to make a meal for myself.

I remember once pulling pork chops from the freezer. I thought I’d try and do what my caregivers suggested and cook a meal for myself. So I defrosted the meat and cooked them in a frying pan. Thinking back now that wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But I was on my own with no one to tell me that undercooked pork is potentially dangerous. But I finished cooking them and ate them. luckily without issue. I was kind of proud of myself for trying to nourish myself and was feeling pretty good. Until my care-givers came home and scolded me for using the pork chops they were saving for later in the week.

So there I stood, not knowing how to nourish myself and my need for food, being told that there was plenty of food in the fridge. Only now I realize I wasn’t allowed to eat it without the consent of my care-givers. Who already thought I was eating too much because I was overweight. And I was overweight because my diet consisted of cereal, soda, and whatever candy I could buy at the local convenience store.

And With No Guidance to Show Me How

Also my caregivers were gone from 10am to 2am most days. So there was nobody awake in the house by the the time I left for school in the mornings. And by the time I got home from school, my care-givers were working. I went to bed whenever I wanted and ate whatever was left over in the fridge. Sometimes not seeing them for days. So getting consent to make meals for myself or to be shown how to nourish my nutritional needs wasn’t even an option.

Food Food Everywhere But Not a Meal to Nourish

Fast forward to two weeks ago and I’m rearranging my cabinets to make room for new purchases. It was then that I realized that there are some food items that have been in my cabinets for about half a decade. That’s a long time for a box of pasta to be sitting in the cabinet. I was treating my pantry like a museum. Curating different “staples”, things I should have, to have food on hand. Though I only ate a few meals. I only just started learning how to meal prep and had no idea how to put together a pantry. Speaking of building a functional pantry, Minimalist Baker has a great post on how to set up your own pantry. In case you were in the same boat that I was.

What I had was cabinets full of foods that I rarely used, if at all and no intention of ever using them. They were just there. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have a feeling it has a lot to do with my upbringing. Being told we had plenty of food yet none of it was for me to prepare. I just wanting to know I had food, for the comfort of having it.

New Lessons on How to Nourish my Body

I’ve been cooking for a long time as a way to make a living. I started in a small but successful Mexican takeout place when I was 20 and I’ve been cooking in some form ever since. But when it came to cooking for myself, I didn’t. For a long time I ate takeout and went to restaurants and seldom cooked meals. It wasn’t until the last few years that I started to meal prep. Bring meals to work with me and taking an active role in nourishing my body.

One of the first changes I made that has had a positive impact on how I choose to nourish myself is through batch cooking. I start out with a plan, by choosing about three recipes to cook for the week. Then I keep them in the fridge for easy meals that I can reheat, instead of cooking at the end of a long day. I also batch cook lunch and breakfast to bring to work with me on the same day. One of the benefits is, that I’m able to organize my shopping list around the recipes I choose. This way very little food goes to waste.

Batch Cooking for Beginners

To batch cook, I simply take the recipes I’m going to cook for the week and multiply them by two or three times the original quantity. So if the recipe yields two servings, if I multiply all the ingredients by three, I have six servings. I usually cook only a few recipes and some kind of grain to have some variety, so I’m not eating the same thing day after day. But also because I don’t have the freezer space and they would go bad before I’d get to them.

And after realizing that a good portion of my pantry was old enough to start school, I made a plan to use up what I had. To organize my pantry and hopefully my relationship to the food I eat as well.

I’ve been searching for recipes that use these items that have been taking up cabinet space and am making plans to rotate and keep my stores fresh. For example instead of buying boxes of pasta, just to have incase, after I use up what I do have I’m going to buy pasta fresh from the pasta shop that is close to home (update: I’m buying pasta on the cheap until I pay off my debt). This way, I’ll be eating fresh foods while freeing up space in my pantry. Also supporting a local business at the same time.

Quality and Self-Care in Nourishing Myself

I was a little worried about the price I would be paying. Being a thrifty New Englander and all. But I’ve found that buying fresh isn’t that much more expensive. A pound of pasta is roughly around 4 dollars fresh. Compared to .79 cents for it’s dried counterpart. Yes that’s four times the cost. But if you only eat pasta once or twice a week, or less as I do, that’s only 12 dollars a month for 9 meals. That’s roughly $1.50 a meal, assuming you get 3 meals from a pound of pasta. So it’s affordable and the quality is unbeatable. It’s also a nice way to treat yourself with a special, affordable meal.

I think what sparked this investigation into my relationship with food and how I eat, started with my self-care Sunday dinners. On my self-care Sundays, I spend one day a week to take special care of myself. I chose my Friday, or the last day of my work week which falls on Sunday. And a large part of the day involves preparing and eating a special meal for myself. Something I normally wouldn’t make. This act helps me to enjoy being around food and the process of making it. Being creative, and trying something I normally wouldn’t cook for myself. Before these dinners, looking up new recipes was something I seldom did! I would usually eat the same three or four recipes without veering from them.

Enjoying Cooking Again

In short, I’m teaching myself the healthy habits and boundaries around food I was never given. What used to be a source of fear and anxiety, has now become a resource. I look forward to coming home on my Fridays, knowing that I’ll light a candle, put some music on and cook a meal that I know I’m going to enjoy. It’s a source of pleasure to know I’m able to care for and nourish myself in this way. And I’m also eating healthier foods as well! We spend so much of our time relating to food, why spend that time and energy being fearful of it? Treat your food with love and you will love what you eat. Thanks for reading. Peace :]

Here are a few of my go-to recipes if you’re looking for something new or to start batch cooking for yourself, enjoy!

Roast Vegetable & Quinoa Harvest Bowl

1-Pot Everyday Lentil Soup

Easy Vegan Ramen

Image Credits: “Early 20th century pantry in Pittock Mansion” by mharrsch is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Updated 7/31/22

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