It's okay to sit and hold your little ones, watch them sleep, or just enjoy their presence. It's okay to put our work aside and play a game with our kids. It's okay to leave the dishes soaking and go take a walk at sunset together. Sometimes, it feels like we need that permission. This world has gotten complicated, and websites that were supposed to be for connecting with friends or finding ideas for parties now leave our minds full of “shoulds.” “I should fix fancier meals,” “I should redecorate,” or “I should make all our furniture out of shipping pallets.”
Obviously, the work is still there and it must be done eventually. The balance is figuring out how to get the essentials done, fix real food for your family, and actually have time to enjoy your family. I’ve recently drifted back into the habit of putting my kids to bed before I cleaned up the kitchen. Tense and irritated at how long they were taking to get to bed, I'd grow more and more exasperated, knowing that when they FINALLY got to bed I'd be stuck with the entire kitchen and dining area to clean up by myself. This week I'm working on breaking that routine, again. They’re old enough to help--well, all but my little girl: she tries to sweep and just makes a bigger mess. I'm starting again with the boys helping me clean up after dinner, even if dinner is later than I'd like. They're all doing something, even if it's taking the little one to the other room to read, and I feel less like a “cleaning lady.” It's also giving me permission to enjoy putting them to bed, because I'm not so burdened by the mess I know is waiting in the kitchen.
Tonight, I served rice and vegetables for dinner. Plain rice and a pan of mixed vegetables. Not a bit fancy. I put butter, pink salt, nutritional yeast, and other seasonings on the counter next to the pan, and we all seasoned our rice to taste. Simple.
Rice is real food. It's one of the simplest, most inexpensive real food items at the grocery store. I usually choose brown rice, but it takes longer to cook when I’m in a hurry, so I try to have some white rice on hand, too. And I now happily enjoy the convenience of frozen vegetables. I used to feel like all my vegetables needed to be fresh from the produce section, which of course meant I had to wash and cut everything myself. But frozen vegetables are allowed to ripen on the plant, which means they get their full nutrient content. They're typically picked, washed, and frozen soon after harvest, which means they're retaining that nutrient content. A lot of items in your produce department have to be picked weeks before they get to you, which means they have to be picked early so they don't go bad before they get to the store.
I'm certainly not against fresh vegetables, and farmer’s market season is a great time to buy fresh, local vegetables that were picked ripe.
I used to feel guilty about dinners like this, like I somehow failed, that I didn't really “cook.” But I taught a childbirth class tonight, my children came in from playing outside and had stories to tell me, so was I really supposed to be pouring over recipes or hurriedly trying to put together a complicated concoction? We sat together, seasoned our rice and vegetables and enjoyed each other.
After all, it's because I love my family that I want to keep them healthy and do the best I can for them. Since I love them, I want to be present with them and enjoy them, not just be working around them.
I do “really cook” sometimes, but not all the time. It happens less often these days, with a barely-three-year-old underfoot and classes to teach. But the fact that my oldest is now taller than I is a constant visual reminder that soon enough that sweet three-year-old will be grown, too. Maybe she will help me cook, and we can come up with some gourmet meals together, but for now we might have some more simple nights of rice and veggies.
A friend asked me if I thought her family of four could reduce their monthly food budget to $500 and eat more healthfully than they are now. Here is what I told her:
I think it's possible, but given the ages of your boys and your athletic husband you might need to give yourself grace to spend $550 or $600.
When we were tracking our groceries diligently, we were spending $700/month pretty consistently, for six of us. I'm going to start tracking again, especially now that we have Aldi, although I'm afraid that may make for an unfair comparison for people in areas who don't have one.
I've been asked how we can afford so much produce. I could reply, “Well, we can't afford to be sick!” or something along those lines that implies that I would be able to pull more money out of my back pocket if I thought my health were really a priority. I understand the question to be more literal. Because when you're not indulging in 1000 cable channels, weekly manicures, restaurants, movies, etc. and are literally trying to have enough money to feed everyone better food, the implication that it's just not important enough to you is frustrating, at best. Depending on the source, infuriating.
How can I afford to eat a lot of produce? I think it's because we have kept our menus very simple, and we don't eat meat. So my answer to everyone is not going to include “don't eat meat,” but I will suggest that if you're trying to reduce your food budget you include more meatless meals. And learn how to cook beans that taste good. There is a method, though it's not difficult.
Now, from where you are currently, how do you get to both more healthful AND $500/month at the same time?
First, it's going to take a plan. I know menus and meal plans have become a trend, and rightly so. But the reason I've never purchased a plan is that I know what my family is going to eat better than anyone, and if I'm making food that no one is going to eat, I'm going to either be riddled with guilt, buying extra snacks, or giving up entirely because I can't handle all the complaints. I get enough complaints in my life as it is.
Add on a few food sensitivities and vegetarianism, and there's no way a pre-fab, subscribed-to meal plan would work for our family. (If they work for yours- congratulations! Enjoy!)
Now, to get started on your project: a list of meals and corresponding grocery list that will feed you all for your desired budget.
1) Make a list of the things you normally fix for meals.
2) Figure out what the cost of the meals are.
You can use your boys for this: it's a great real-life math lesson. As a bonus, this helps them see the real cost of food and may lead to less complaining when you explain why you're now only having their favorite once a month. Be realistic about this: if the recipe card calls for 8 oz of cheese, but you know you reach into your 5 pound bag from Sam's club and generously dump 12 ounces in the pasta, account for that. There's no sense lying to yourself about what you use, you'll only mess up your budget. And no one is grading you on it, anyway!
3) Rank the meals by cost. Then you can decide what you can afford to make most often and what needs to take a back seat. Of course, you can also include other priorities. For example, I have found that home made pizza is one of our cheapest meals, so I decided to make it once a week, usually on Friday. The problem was that, start to cleanup, it took hours and hours for me to make! I think I gave up on home made pizza during my fourth pregnancy. Now I make it occasionally, and my boys have gotten old enough to help more.
At this point, you should have a good general picture of what you're eating and problems that need to be addressed. For example, if you have now realized that you only fix 5 different things for dinner, now is a good time to learn a few new dishes. (Unless you're all okay with just those five, because you're still better off than most of the world!) Or if you've noticed that too many of your meals are comprised of wheat and cheese, or imbalanced in some other way. You can also notice if you're relying too heavily on prepackaged foods, which are driving up your cost and driving down your health. For example, if you're making a boxed, pre-seasoned rice dish as a side with several meals, you should learn to make a good rice dish on your own. This will end up saving you money, and reducing things like MSG and hydrogenated oils in your diet.
4) Use the list to make your actual menu. For this step, I used to just scribble it down on scrap paper and stick it on the fridge, which worked just fine. I've tried making a rotating menu on the computer, but it got too complicated and was cumbersome to change. Now I use sticky notes, just the top part, on the calendar. Yes, an actual physical, paper calendar that I keep in the kitchen. I realize I could just put it on the calendar app on my phone, but I prefer the paper calendar. My kids can move around the sticky notes each month to make the menu if I'm busy. They know which nights we have activities and need a meal that is easier and quicker to make. Anyone can look at the calendar and know what we're having for dinner. I can even be working at the computer, or on the phone, signal to my eleven year old to check the calendar, and he can get out the appropriate pans and ingredients, put water on for pasta, etc. Plus, I don't like having to look at my phone for EVERYTHING. The bonus is if I've forgotten to do something ahead of time for dinner, or we've run out of time, or a crucial ingredient, I can simply move the sticky notes around and solve the problem faster than I can edit the calendar on my phone.
5) Adjust according to what is on sale, within reason. It doesn't take long to look at the sale ads for the major grocery chains since they're all online, and you can plan your menu accordingly. I don't recommend trying to look up recipes you've never made just because something is on sale unless you have time and are really good at that sort of thing. But if you find a great sale on something you will use, then work it into your menu as many times as you can.
Of course there will be times you realize that all your eggs were used with impromptu omelets someone else decided to make, or you forgot to soak beans, take meat out of the freezer, and so on. That's when you just throw up your hands and have oatmeal or sandwiches! It's real food, people get fed, and you move on.
I feel like that's a basic starting point for what you're trying to do. If you have any more questions, let me know and I'll try to answer the best I can, especially as you figure out what health changes you want to make as you plan.
I was thrilled the first time my then-four-year-old walked over to me during a dinner with friends and asked, “Mommy, may I have another salad?” Trying not to dissuade him by looking too happy with his request, I got up and fixed him another salad. He has found this to be the easiest request to get an affirmative response out of me. Even if I've already put all the food away and finished cleaning the kitchen, I can't help but oblige a child asking for more salad.
But this past week I heard something new: “Mommy, could I have a fourth salad?”
I paused, considering, “Daniel, I think … maybe … you've had enough salad. I mean, I don't think it's going to hurt you, but you might need something with some more calories.” I know I wasn't convincing, and I'm still trying to decide whether I was wrong, but at that point I was trying to avoid being awoken at 3 a.m. by a little voice whining about being SOOO hungry.
Nevertheless, being asked about a fourth salad feels like a victory in this land of fast-food, microwaved meals and kids who will only eat mac-and-cheese, chicken nuggets, and tater tots. It feels like the time my middle son, who was six, asked me “what on earth” another boy at his Taekwondo school had, and I had to explain that it was called a Happy Meal. (There are plenty of things I've done wrong with my kids, but I'm going to go ahead and feel victorious when I can!)
For the last couple of years I've been telling my friends about the benefits of green smoothies. “They're like a multivitamin in a glass, only better, because they're whole-food.” “They're wonderful protection against osteoporosis and anemia, and they're relatively cheap and easy to make.” I'd even say, “Kids love them. Just call it an Incredible Hulk Smoothie and kids will think it's great.” Ironically, my own kids didn't buy my enthusiasm, and they finally went on strike.
Okay, it wasn't a strike, but they did approach us with a request: could they just have salads instead? It was the first time they'd asked about ceasing green smoothies without sounding whiny, so we listened. We agreed they could have non-green smoothies in the morning, but they had to have at least two salads per day. And they were going to make them, not I. I do try to check for cut-up veggies during the day, but they have taken on the task of actually assembling their salads, and I often delegate cutting a cucumber or a pepper. They have to be full bowls, with at least half dark greens like spinach, kale, and chard. (We're blessed to have a warehouse club in our town where we are able to buy organic greens for $4/pound. If you don't have a warehouse club near you, check around for restaurant suppliers and farmers markets.) So now, when it gets to be that dreaded, almost-dinnertime-but-it's-not-ready-and-we're-hungry-NOW-hour, I can simply say, “I'm making dinner. Why don't you go make your second salad?”
My kids did not always want salad and it's been a process to get them to where they are. I think it's been easier because we started changing our diet when they were still pretty young, but I don't think it's a food that most people naturally take to at first. I think you can train yourself with what you need, and eventually it will become something you like. I know there are as many thoughts about how to get kids to eat good food as there are opinions about what we should eat in the first place. I'm not going to say which is right, but following are the methods that worked for us:
I served salads before dinner, and I told my boys it was because they were the most important foods. I worded it that way so they didn't get the idea that it was the undesirable thing you have to eat before you could get “the good stuff.” I know there are different schools of thought on when salad should be eaten, but I didn't do a bunch of research on “before vs after the meal.” I simply figured it would be better received if they were hungrier.
It was not presented as optional, but it was not forced, either. A kid who truly ate most of it but said there were “just too many dry greens” at the bottom was listened to. Requests to stop getting the “purple lettuce” were heeded. (They were right- that stuff is bitter!) My child who was most resistant was allowed to eat his salad “bite for bite” with his other food, and then eventually was allowed to have a veggie plate instead. At first I thought I was not supposed to give in to him, but I finally realized that if I forced the issue I was going to make him hate salad. He would likely never eat one again once he left my house. Later we realized he has some real sensory processing issues, so the greens really were bothersome to him and I'm glad we didn't force him. He spent years making decorative veggie plates for himself and now he wants to be a chef. Also, now he will eat salad.
I'm a big fan of salad dressing. I let my kids, for the most part, pick their dressing. I've actually had to discourage one son from eating his salad plain, because we really do need the fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in salad. (See http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/80/2/396.full) We've gradually progressed from unhealthful, to not-so-bad, to better-but-expensive store-bought dressings. My kids now think it's fun to make our own. Just start with a basic recipe online and tweak it based on preferences and what you have on hand. It really is easy, I promise. There have been stages in my life when I know I could not have handled having to do even that one small extra task, so if that's where you are, don't worry about it. Pick a dressing that will get your family eating salad and don't stress about it. Stress isn't good for you!
I know some people like to hide vegetables in creative ways, assuming their children won't eat them and could never like them. I think that's a valid survival strategy for a very difficult child who likely has nutritional deficiencies, but I also think we need to present our kids with the best food options as the best food options. There are ways to make vegetables, even salad, accepted by our kids and even fun. I love the fact that my boys are now taking ownership of their options--salad vs green smoothies--and even taking on the job themselves.
I went through a chubby stage as a pre-teen girl, which most pre-teen girls do. My favorite uncle was in town visiting and my mom told him that I'd said I was afraid I was going to be fat because I take after the bigger side of the family, his side. He said one of the best things anyone could have said to me at that point. “No, you don't have to do that. You know why? You're too smart for that; you know better. My mom was raising us by herself and she was so proud of how well she could feed us that she fed us everything she could. She'd serve meatloaf, pasta, and potatoes in the same meal, and we just ate and ate. You don't have to do that. You can control what you eat and your size.”
I took his advice. I realized at some point that I don't like that over-stuffed feeling of having gorged myself at a meal, even if it's a holiday. I'd rather NOT have a stomach ache, thank you, and I can come back later for more. And you know what? My uncle was right. So, while I've never been obsessively trying to keep my weight down, I just sort of learned when to stop eating. Later, I would learn more about ingredients and food choices. I've also observed a couple of times in my life a thin person in an otherwise-not-thin family, who at first glance appears to have just inherited “the good genes.” Further observation reveals some different food choices.
Years later, I was shopping with a friend and her sweet nieces for back to school clothes, when the 13-year-old said to me, “I'm probably going to be big one day, because my mom is kinda big.” I didn't want to overstep my bounds, or insult her mother, but I couldn't say nothing. “Well, you really don't have to be. I mean, I don't know what your mom was taught to eat or how she was raised, but you can make your own choices about how much you eat and whether you exercise. You really do have a lot of power over your size and health.”
I lost my favorite uncle a couple of years after our conversation over my mom's kitchen table. He had a heart attack and died at age fifty-two. He had a wife and children who loved him and we would all have loved to have had him around longer. His youngest brother did not make it to fifty, and I never knew my grandmother because she passed away so young. While my pre-teen self was dealing with the fear of “being fat,” my grown-up self wishes I could have had those people in my life longer.
Are there genetic predispositions? Sure. But there's also emerging evidence that we can affect the way our genes work by what we eat. I can look at my family history and say that I am likely to die of a heart attack in my early fifties. Given my choices and resulting health, I don't think that's very likely. I am convinced that there are many of us using inheritance or metabolism as a cop-out. There's actually very little difference between most people's metabolism. So, maybe it doesn't just run in the family, maybe families pass down eating habits, not just genes. Whether we adopt those habits is up to us.
My mother has recently been diagnosed with Lymphoma. She was sitting with the nurse, who had just given her the packet listing all the side effects of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is not exactly known for being gentle to the body or having few adverse effects. My mom decided to ask the nurse about something her friend had suggested she do instead—a Vitamin C flush. The nurse responded, “I'd be concerned about how your body would react to all that acid. You'd probably have burning when you urinate.”
I'm not going to debate methods of cancer treatment here; there are plenty of sites and resources for that. I am a firm believer that each person has to do their own research, and come to their own conclusions that they can be comfortable with. And I am a firm believer in logic. Had the nurse given my mom a study that showed that a Vitamin C flush would not work, she would have had something to go on. But the idea that the acid in Vitamin C, a natural, water-soluble substance, would be harsh enough on the body to give concern to the chemo nurse? The logic hit the floor with a thud.
It's easy to get bogged down with the “what to dos” of getting or staying healthy. Studies can be incredibly deceiving, sometimes intentionally. There's a new “revolutionary” diet out every few months and people really want to know what they should and should not eat. I'm glad there's such growing interest about food and healthy lifestyle choices, but the quest doesn't need to be so confusing. There's no reason to throw logic out the window where your health is concerned.
One of the ways we do this is when we give ourselves over to the experts and take them at their word, no matter what. We do this all the time, especially when we simply don't ask the right questions. We have to remember what type of doctor we have chosen, and what they are trained to do. Most of our conventional doctors are trained to recognize symptoms, diagnose disease, and prescribe the corresponding medicine. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes that is what is needed at the moment. But don't rely on their drugs and procedures without bothering to ask questions and advocate for yourself.
I've been guilty of going along with the experts and not asking the right questions. I was very young, newly married and on those horrid birth control pills. A few months in, I started having pain in my lower right quadrant. I had grown a large ovarian cyst. I asked my doctor, the expert, if the pills could have caused it, and was told, “No, we actually use the pill to prevent ovarian cysts in women who get them a lot.” That is true, and I don't think my doctor was trying to mislead me. I just think we weren't asking the right questions. “Sure, if someone has cysts already, maybe pills control them, but since I've never had this problem...” Sixteen months of the pill, two surgeries, and when the third cyst came along, I just quit listening to my doctor. I went off the pill and the cyst went away. By that point I was under 21 and missing an ovary. (I was also walking around with staples in my abdomen, but I wouldn't find out about that for nine more years. That's another story.)
I look back at cringe at how I just went along with it for so long. I really didn't have anyone encouraging me to do my own research and ask the right questions. I would do things differently now and I've learned a lot. If your doctor is telling you, “You're [organ] isn't producing enough [vital substance],” maybe rather than, “Which drug fixes that?” the logical question should be, “Why not?” There is not a drug deficiency that leads to a health problem known to man.
Questions to consider when your body isn't functioning correctly:
Do I have a deficiency of some sort? If I do, is it because it's lacking in my diet? If so, how can I get more of what I need in my diet? If not, is there an absorption problem in my gut? What's at the root of the absorption problem? Do I need a drug to fix the immediate symptoms while I work on getting better? Do the side effects of the drug outweigh the benefits?
We need to ask questions that take us to the root of the problem. Ask “why,” and “why,” and “why” again, if you have to. And don't drop logic on the floor when you make your choices.
After a beautiful drive in the late-October weather, pointing out trees of unusual brightness to my ten-year-old companion, I found myself, yet again, standing in the grocery store frustrated. Perturbed. Irritated. “How can I possibly make chocolate-covered pretzels for the party when all the chocolate made for melting has hydrogenated oils in it?!” Reaching for the bright blue bag of the pre-made chocolate-covered pretzels, I noticed that they didn't contain the offending ingredient. I calculated the cost of buying enough for 14 kids--nope! I finally gave up and went home with bags of chocolate chips and white chocolate chips. You have to be careful here: “chocolatey morsels” and other such deceivers are out there in rampant numbers. Ghiradelli white chocolate chips and the good old Nestle Toll House chocolate chips do not have partially-hydrogenated oils in them. I headed home hoping they would melt and re-harden like I wanted.
But, wait! Chocolate chips?! This is supposed to be a health blog!
Ah, yes. But I have kids. And I live in the real world: a world where there are parties and camping trips, lock-ins and field trips--an unending barrage of sugar-laden, fat-filled festivities. And I must navigate, trying to be mindful of my children's desires to be normal, fit in, and eat the food that looks so good!
Thus my dilemma on this beautiful October afternoon—Halloween, my least favorite day of the year. Not only is my mind full of questions about the spiritual implications thereof, but there is also the sugar. Think about it: a fun-sized 3 Musketeers bar has the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of sugar in it. How many candy bars do most children eat on this night?! For me, it's just not worth sacrificing my children's health with such a massive amount of sugar for the sake of having fun or keeping a tradition. We have never gone trick-or-treating, but have done various other fun things around that time of year. We have chosen to do something else every year, even if it means making popcorn and watching a movie or playing games together.
This year I threw a party, which I hope to make our own tradition. My house was full of costumes, games, and chaos. Every family brought a crockpot of soup to share, I made some cupcakes, and we did a piñata variation that allowed kids with restricted diets to participate, too.* Melting non-hydrogenated chocolate chips onto pretzels was more time-consuming than buying pre-made bags of junk food, but it was worth it. I want my kids to have fun, happy childhood memories without thinking that having fun means over-indulgence or making yourself sick for the sake of sweets. I hope to strike that balance.
*We made a paper-bag piñata. Instead of just filling the bag with candy, we filled it with paper bags with kid's names on them. We finished filling the bags while the kids were playing other games, and each mom brought things she knew her child could have and would like. I also cut pieces of cardboard and placed them in each bag to protect the goodies from being smashed.