April Meal Plan #2: Starting Swim Lessons

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Big Sis and me, at parent-tot swim lessons several years ago

Next week, I’m embarking on an adventure that requires a whole new level of organization and planning: early evening swim lessons for two children in the five-and-under age bracket! Pondering the post-lesson locker room antics already has me shuddering. But you know what? I’ve done this before and we somehow all managed to survive. I have great faith in our abilities!

It does mean, however, that meal planning for Mondays and Wednesdays must be simple and fast. They’ll be coming home hungry. I’ll be coming home short of patience and energy. How will I address this reality? In future weeks, I hope to employ the slow cooker… or maybe also do up some super simple skillet meals. But for now, I’m still on my Lenten pantry challenge. And I’m sticking with it, even if I’m a little light on veggies and a little heavy on carbohydrates…

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Fridge, freezer, and pantry items I’m using up with this week’s plan: pasta, bread crumbs, garlic, chicken nuggets, black-eyed peas, corn meal, rice, beans, tortillas, jar curry, frozen meat, rice

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Swim Lesson Night #1anchovy and garlic pasta with cut fruit

Swim Lesson Night #2 – chicken nuggets with garlic-sauteed greens and cut fruit

Pantry Challenge #1smoked sausage and black-eyed peas with cornbread

Pantry Challenge #2rice and bean lunch wraps

Pantry Challenge #3 – jar curry with either pork or lamb, served over rice.

 

April Meal Plan #1: Soggy Spring Break!

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(Tea party with the kids in our hideously dark dining nook!)

Oops! I missed my usual Sunday posting. Apologies! I was very busy with nothing in particular, which is generally what happens on a weekend when you have small children (especially if it’s the first sunny day in eons). The fact that we’re officially on Spring Break around here only made it worse! To top it all off, I just didn’t feel like cooking, so our Sunday dinner involved burgers, fries, and milkshakes from a local drive-thru.

It was glorious.

But Lenten observances wait for no woman, and now I’m back to trying to clear out my pantry. (Side note: why, oh why did I buy all of these canned artichokes? Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe they are secretly breeding when my back’s turned…)

You’ll note some heartier dishes on this week’s menu. In part, that’s because I’ve got to use up some russet potatoes. But it’s also because this weekend’s brief moment of sunshine ended all too quickly. The forecast for the rest of the week is both gloomy and soggy. Again.

Sigh. So much for Spring Break.

At least our boots and raincoats had a little time to dry off. And an excuse for more hot chocolate isn’t a bad thing, right? Ah, well. Here’s everything I’m trying to use up this week… and the menu I’ll be following to do so. (Bonus: if I get really inspired, I might even make some homemade hummus. Take that, random chickpeas and inexplicable bounty of garlic!)

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Fridge, freezer, and pantry items I’m using up with this week’s plan: frozen broth, frozen razor clams, buckwheat, linguine, canned artichokes, sweetened condensed milk, potatoes, garlic, onion, lemon, giant hunk of Parmesan cheese from Costco

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Vegetarian: mushroom and garlic buckwheat risotto (I’ll throw in some spinach, too)

Big Easy 1: razor clam linguine with sliced fruit and sauteed asparagus

Big Easy 2: roast chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and some sort of steamed veggie

Reusing Leftovers: chicken noodle soup with stock made from boiled chicken carcass

Tea Party: I love serving well-styled odds ‘n ends to my family, and it’s one of my kiddos’ favorite meals. This time around, I’ll be making spinach-artichoke dip to serve on our favorite Dutch oven bread. We’ll also have sliced strawberries with condensed milk pound cake. I’ll serve with whatever cured meats, sliced fruits, and crunchy veggies happen to be lying around our fridge.

March Meal Plan #3: Unhealthy Without Apologies

 

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(Yes, my food philosophy includes the snack that smiles back)

This shouldn’t be so hard, I tell myself. I’m just writing a grocery list, not splitting the atom. 

Sigh. Does anyone else ever feel a slight clutch of panic before a trip to the store? Especially if you’re on a firm budget and it’s nearing the end of the month?

If you’re like me, you can turn the molehill of meal planning into a mountain of meaning. These meals aren’t just meals, I like to tell myself. They’re the way I convey love to my family. They’re the most tangible way I express our values. They provide nutrition as well as philosophy! I’m not just dishing up dinner here. I’m drawing my kiddos’ worldview.

And yeah, I can totally see that. But sometimes a Goldfish cracker is just a cracker. It’s a snack, not the signifier of all my parental philosophies. Not the harbinger of obesity, cavities, and other ill health to come.

Just. A. Cracker.

I bring this up because as I meal plan, I always try to find a balance between competing priorities. First and foremost, I try to optimize the time I spend on meal planning and prepping. It is, after all, time that could be spent in a myriad of ways (playing, reading, working, and cleaning leap immediately to mind).

Other thoughts: My family tries to enjoy food without slipping over into constant gluttony. We endeavor to balance comforting familiarity with the fun of new culinary adventures. We value health as well as flavor. And we value the ease of alone time (just the four of us) as well as the excitement of entertaining. Is it possible to address all of these points? Can we do so while respecting the constraints of our budget? Can we do so while respecting the health of our earth and the well-being of other humans and creatures? (Yeah, why not? Let’s add “thriftiness,” “responsibility” and “environmental” to the other values associated with our food.)

Theoretically, this puts a lot of pressure on the weekly meal plan. But this just isn’t the case. Why? Because I don’t have to prioritize every one of those conflicting values every week. We cook and we eat A LOT. These are just the guidelines that I keep in mind as I prepare. I figure it all has to even out over time.

Lately, for instance, we’ve been having a lot of adventure, flavor, and health in our diet. But the trade-off is that we’ve been spending more than I feel we should. So this meal plan was created with a determination to meet our budgetary bottom line… it’s very cost-effective and NOT health conscious AT ALL.

There’s certainly going to be a lot of breading, frying, and smothering in cheese this week. I have a choice about that. I could bemoan the artery-clogging I’m about to unleash on my loved ones… or I could show a little self-compassion and look on the bright side. It’s cheap. A lot of it is vegetarian. I’m mainly using resources I already have in the home. And you know what? If it really bothers me, I can promise myself that, once the budget resets for April, I can commit to 30 days of whole foods (perhaps with purposeful planning that will sustain us all month).

Yeah, self-compassion sounds like the MUCH better option here. No more self recrimination as I (temporarily) pour on the Parmesan and panko. And so it’s with a clear conscience that I present our highly unbalanced meal for the week!

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breaded thing – store-bought chicken nuggets with artichoke chickpea salad

breaded thingfried razor clams with garlic-sauteed kale and tater tots

breaded cheesy thingEggplant Parmesan

cheesy thingbean and cheese burritos

cheesy thingmacaroni and cheese

Lemon Shortbread Cookies

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Hmm. I’m rather pleased with this photo. On a sliding scale of “vomit-inducing” to “absolutely toothsome” we’re getting a little closer to that positive end goal! Sure, I’ve still got some major issues to work out (it doesn’t help that my home is seriously lacking in the natural light department). But I think it’s an improvement over this sad composition.

I’m traveling this week, which means restaurant stipends and no meal plans for me! So instead, I’ll post a recipe for lemon shortbread cookies. Warning! This recipe is dangerously easy and also freezes well. The pounds of butter required are bound to add pounds to your thighs as well… but after one bite, you’ll probably agree with me that it’s totally worth it.

I must give credit where it’s due! This recipe comes from a recent grocery store publication. (Fellow mamas: if you’re able to shop at Fred Meyer, I highly recommend it. They’ve got complimentary cookies and fruit for distracting young children while you shop. Even better: free childcare for up to one hour. I won’t lie. I’ve been known to stick my kids in there and then just go sit quietly in the furniture section for a bit of a break.)

But I digress. You’re wanting to get to that lemon shortbread cookie recipe, aren’t you? Here it is, without further ado:

Hands on Time: 15 minutes. Total Time: 2 hours 35 minutes 

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon packed grated lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • OPTIONAL: sparkling sugar for coating or sprinkling

In a mixing bowl or stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar; and zest and juice. Add flour and salt; stir to combine. Form into 2 logs, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate at least 2 hours until firm. (This is also the perfect time to freeze one or both logs for baking at a later date.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Optional: roll logs in sparkling sugar (alternatively, reserve sugar to sprinkle on each cookie before baking). You can also just skip this step–the cookies are perfectly tasty and pretty without the extra sugar.

Slice the cookie logs into 1/3-inch thick slices; place on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 12-15 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking, until cookies look dry but are not browned.

Store any leftovers in an airtight container. Makes about 4 dozen cookies!

 

 

Personal Growth Requires Self-Knowledge

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Anyone trying to achieve a goal needs to know Gretchen Rubin. She literally wrote the book about habits. Better than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits is a fabulous resource that I’m sure I’ll reference multiple times here. Better yet, I’ll just urge you to go get yourself a copy.

Rubin’s book is based on a premise so logical that I can’t believe it hasn’t just been obvious to me all along. She posits that the key to adopting new habits is actually understanding how we respond to both outer expectations (public work deadlines, preschool snack day, etc.) and inner expectations (“I will write a novel in my free time!” Ahem, cough cough.) Only through understanding ourselves can we hope to work with our tendencies to manage real, sustainable growth.

Based on the common responses to inner and outer expectations, Rubin created the Four Tendencies framework. Here they are, according to Rubin (and yes, I’m now quoting directly from her site):

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

I’ve stated before that I am a hardcore Obliger. Coming up, I’ll be giving my fellow Obligers some tips and tricks for working with your tendency (instead of loathing it and wishing you were different, as many Obligers–myself included–tend to do).

But in the mean time, you can always take Rubin’s quiz to find out whether you’re an Upholder, a Questioner, an Obliger, or a Rebel. I’d love to know… what Tendency are you? 

 

March Meal Plan #2: Pi and Patrick

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As I wrote in last week’s meal plan, for the next 40 days I’m making an effort to minimize my grocery purchases. My goal is to use up what I already have in my fridge, freezer, and pantry.

Don’t get me wrong; I like to have a healthy amount of cooking staples and spices on hand. I’ve got nothing against a full jar of quinoa commanding space in my cupboard. But the random buckwheat I’ve yet to open? The cans of artichokes I seem to hoard for no reason? I want to use them before they expire!

Of course, I also want to celebrate and make food special at every opportunity. Happily, this week affords two opportunities to do so: Pi Day (March 14) and St. Patrick’s Day! So yes, while my Lenten resolutions include an effort to minimize grocery purchases I will be splurging on some corned beef and cabbage this Friday. Who knows? If I have time, I may even make some Irish soda bread.

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Fridge, freezer, and pantry items I’m using up with this week’s plan: leftover cooked chicken, parsley, frozen apple pie filling, broccoli, jar Alfredo sauce, frozen turkey burgers, quinoa, frozen chicken, cream of chicken soup, random freezer veggies, miso paste, Ramen noodles, dried and canned kidney beans, cornmeal, canned artichokes, spinach, random fruit

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Pi Day celebration: chili and cornbread with apple pie for dessert

Pantry Challenge #1: chicken Alfredo pasta with a spinach and artichoke salad (sauce from a jar–gloriously easy!)

Pantry Challenge #2: fried rice made with with chopped turkey burger

Pantry Challenge #3: broccoli quinoa casserole with fruit salad

St. Patrick’s Day celebration: Slow Cooker Corned Beef and Cabbage

Process vs. Product Goals

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I thought I knew everything I could possibly need to know about goal-setting. To be fair, this is not an unreasonable assumption. Not only am I naturally ambitious and reflective, but I taught high school English in our current era of high-stakes assessment. My entire professional life revolved around improving students’ test scores. Goal-setting was a huge part of that.

I can rattle off all kinds of data about the necessity of clear targets as a motivational and focusing force. I can easily align my goals to larger frameworks (say, for instance, a teacher evaluation system). I can toss in an acronym for good measure whenever I’m analyzing a goal’s efficacy. “Is this a S.M.A.R.T. goal?” I ask. “Is it specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, and timely?”

And yet, something’s been missing in my relentless quest to set and clear ever-higher hurdles. That “something” is the thoughtful selection of process versus product goals.

In this article from the Ivey Business Journal, authors Gary P. Latham and Gerard Seijts give a great (though lengthy and corporation-directed) description of the two types of goals. Here’s the gist for busy creative types:

  • A product goal (also known as a performance goal) places the focus on outcome. It assumes that whoever’s striving to meet the goal already has the skills necessary to achieve it. He, she, or they just require further focus and/or motivation. This is the writer boldly stating, “I will write an 80,000 word novel before the end of 2017.”
  • A process goal (also known as a learning goal) acknowledges up front that the person or people trying to achieve the goal still need to acquire vital knowledge or skills. It encourages experimentation and allows for mistakes. An example might be “I will discover three ways to reengage with my manuscript when all I want to do is quit.”

Which kind of goals do you tend to set? For my own part, I always focus on product. I thought this was the fabulously effective way to do things, as it fit within that whole SMART acronym for goal setting.

Yet as Latham and Seijts point out, setting a specific product-oriented goal can be quite damaging if you do it too early in your learning curve. They explain that a novice’s attention “needs to be focused on discovering and mastering the processes required to perform well, rather than on reaching a certain level of performance.”

Makes sense, right? I’ve been driven by my resolution to finish a novel. I’ve been disgusted by my inability to do so. And I’ve been missing my opportunity to reflect, regroup, and really grow.

As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way, “Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can feel foolish or barren.”

I’m sure I’ll find my 2017 direction eventually. But for now, this post is part of a larger series on creative goal setting. While I ponder my path forward, I’d love to hear some examples of process or learning goals that have inspired your work in the past.