Friday, August 28, 2015

Project Fix The Food Budget Update


Believe it or not, even though I haven't talked much about this lately, we've been pretty successful in cutting back our food budget like we set out to do.

(If this is the first you're hearing about this, check out my previous posts about the project.)

In July, we spent $489.92 on groceries. That's just over $100 a week for the month and is the least amount we've spent on groceries in 6 months. Obviously, we have a little more shaving to do, but I'm pretty confident that we can get below $100 with a little careful grocery shopping and some intentional meal planning.

I know August is not going to be nearly as pretty. We've had a couple outings - a much needed date night, a great visit with old friends, a girls' night with some newer friends, a trip to the zoo - which all necessitated a little more relaxation in our budget. I'm not sure yet how to consider those outings. On one hand, I don't want to take them out of the food budget altogether. After all, shouldn't we be able to do a date night without blowing the budget at a nice restaurant? On the other hand, a restrictive budget for those kinds of things will mean we do them less often, which is a problem in itself.

Those issues aside, I'm really happy with how well I've been able to make a meal plan and more or less stick to it. We've had good weeks and bad, but we haven't had to throw away a head of lettuce in over a month which feels like an amazing accomplishment in itself. I've been sticking to very simple meals that are fairly easy to pull together in 15-30 minutes, and not being shy about using convenience foods where they make my life easier. Frozen hamburgers, taco seasoning and shells, frozen pizza, I'm not shy about using any of them if they're going to help me get dinner on the table and stick to a budget at the same time.


Which brings me to this: my favourite chicken. One of the goals of this whole thing is to find as many "back-pocket recipes" I can find, the recipes that don't feel like a hassle to make, the ones I can whip up without thinking at a moments notice as long as I have all the ingredients on hand. This is the first. Mostly, it's not actually a recipe. I guess it is, but it doesn't feel like it. Either way, it's delicious and simple simple simple.

Baked Montreal Chicken

1 package of chicken thighs
Montreal chicken spice to taste

Yup, that's it. I suppose I could make my own Montreal chicken spice, and maybe one day I will, but for now, I just buy it. I preheat the oven to 350*, lay the chicken out on a broiling pan, and sprinkle pretty liberally with Montreal chicken spice. Sometimes, I decide to toss the thighs with a little olive oil before the spice mix, in which case, I do it in a bowl before laying the pieces out on the pan. Then, I bake the chicken for about 20 minutes, maybe half an hour if the pieces are a little larger than normal, until they're cooked all the way through.

And, that's it.

I've served the chicken on a salad, or with veggies on the side, or however I feel like it on that particular day. My favourite method, hands down, is the one shown here - wrapped up with all the fixings in a tortilla wrap. Any leftovers get popped into a tupperware container and saved for the next day's lunches, sliced thin with avocado and goat cheese on toast, or added to a soup later in the week.

What have you guys been eating lately that you've loved? Do you have any "back-pocket recipes"? And, tell me - how do you deal with date night, dinner with friends, and any other kind of outing in your food budget?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Attic of Awesome: DIY Bed Frame of Awesome

Our attic has been finished for, what? 2 years now? No, not quite. A year and a half maybe. Ever since we finished it, we've been sleeping on our bed with the box spring on the ground. Finding a proper bed frame has been pretty low priority. A bed frame doesn't necessarily affect the functionality of a bed, so we just ignored it, and ignored it and ignored it. There have been far too many other things taking up our attention - and our finances.

But, a couple weeks ago, we had a free weekend, a little bit of inspiration, and plenty of motivation on Mark's part. He went to Home Depot and bought some wood, a few brackets and some matte finish varnish and went to work measuring, cutting, sanding, screwing, staining, and sealing. The whole project took him one day and came out beautifully. 




We were inspired by the DIY bed frame created by Kiwi and Peach, and Mark used their tutorial as guidance, but made some things up as he went along too. It's a very simple bed, but it seems to finish off the look of our attic. Except for the still unpainted closet doors, it no longer feels half done. 

There are still plenty of things to figure out in this space. We've added in an office space up here, which maybe I'll show you in an upcoming post, but it needs some serious prettifying. The dogs now have their crates up here too, which aren't the most beautiful objects to have in this space. But, this bed frame is a start and it feels great to have completed a house project again. Perhaps we can keep some momentum going and turn our attention to all the other nooks and crannies of our house that need a little something.

Off topic: can someone please explain the secret of beautiful pillows? Whenever I make the bed, I can never make them look good, no matter how many I add to the pile, so I just end up hiding them under the duvet. Someone teach me!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Baby Gear Review: BOB Revolution SE

I've been running a lot lately. I've been hesitant to mention it too loudly here in the blog, since technically, I'm training for a half marathon that I'm still not entirely certain I'm going to be ready to run. Even if I don't manage the race, I will have finished the summer in the best shape of my life. I have to admit, I owe a lot of that success to my jogging stroller.


When I first got pregnant, I knew the one place we wanted to buy quality was in a stroller. I figured we would use our stroller so much, we would want something that could stand up to some abuse and be easy, even fun to use. I knew I wanted a jogging stroller, so I could give myself the best chance possible to get active again. Do 5 minutes of online research into jogging strollers, and it seems pretty unanimous that the BOB Revolution is the best in the industry.

In the end, we didn't have to pay the $500+ to buy it ourselves. It was gifted to us by Isabel's grandparents instead.

I started using the stroller with Isabel the day we brought her home. With an adapter, her car seat snapped right in and she was good to go. We walked everywhere in those early weeks. Once I was given the go-ahead by my doctor to start running again, we even went for a slow, easy jog. BOB doesn't recommend running with the car seat attached at all - it makes it top-heavy and more liable to tip - but I felt comfortable enough running on smooth paths at a very slow pace. I would white knuckle the handle and keep a careful eye on Isabel to make sure she didn't bounce around too much, and we went.



Those runs weren't long, and over the winter, came to a complete halt. It's pretty much impossible to run through the snow with any stroller at all, even one with wheels the size this one has. In fact, over the winter, I hardly used my stroller at all, preferring instead to pop Isabel into our Boba baby carrier. But, it still got plenty of use, two days a week, through all types of weather, by Isabel's awesome babysitter.

We switched Isabel out of the car seat after I had stopped running with her, as the weather got colder, when she was about 4 months old. According to the manual, BOB recommends using the car seat adapter until babies are 8 weeks old, but cautions against running with them until they are 8 months old. Obviously, I broke that rule, but by the time I was ready to start running again in the spring, Isabel was their recommended age, and was thrilled to come along with me on my runs as they got longer and longer and longer.

Some things I love about the BOB:
  • The wheels! They're air-filled and huge, allowing it to glide like nothing else. The large wheels also mean stairs aren't a barrier to us. While I still tend to seek out elevators for convenience, we're quite capable of bouncing down or up a set of stairs. There's one entrance to the path I run on which is accessible only by about 50 steps, and they have never stopped us. 
  • The maneuverability. I can steer this bad boy easily with just one hand. Tight corners are also easy to navigate, since the three-wheel design means I don't need a lot of space to turn. Rocky, muddy, or snowy terrain don't stop us either.
  • The fold. For being such a large stroller, it folds down pretty flat and, since all the wheels are easy to take off and put back on again, it's no chore to fold it up to put it in our car. We drive a Volkswagen Golf hatchback, so we don't have a lot of space, but it fits without any problems.

Some things I don't like about the BOB:
  • The storage. The basket is fairly small and difficult to get things in and out of. There is a pocket on the back of the seat as well, but I mostly find it useless for storing anything of note. It also doesn't come with a caddy, so all of this storage is out of reach while you're walking, so there's no such thing as multitasking.
  • The size. It's huge! I have taken it on the subway twice and have felt self-conscious and in the way both times. We now have a small umbrella stroller for those trips, and to take anywhere there might be crowds or really tight spaces that the BOB just doesn't fit into.
  • The seat incline. I guess it makes sense that, for running purposes, Isabel should not be sitting entirely upright. It's probably safer for her to be somewhat reclined. But, I wish there was another setting, a strolling setting, so I could put the seat into a fully upright position when we're walking around and she wants to see the world. She spends a lot of time clinging onto the snack tray so she can see everything.
  • The accessories. The BOB comes very stripped down - just the stroller and nothing else. We had to purchase the car seat adapter separately and, later on, I added a stroller caddy for a place to put a cup of coffee and my phone while I'm walking. I bought a rain cover and, I shelled out the $50 for the snack tray for Isabel. Some of these accessories seem to me like they should be included - the snack tray and the stroller caddy in particular. But, the big problem isn't that they don't come with the stroller. The problem is how expensive they are, and how inaccessible. If I had purchased the BOB car seat adapter, the BOB snack tray, the BOB stroller caddy, and the BOB rain cover, I would have been looking at another $200+ in accessories. I managed to find a stroller caddy and a rain cover that were much cheaper, however. Perhaps an even bigger problem is that I had difficulty getting my hands on both the BOB car seat adapter and the BOB snack tray. They don't actually carry these things in store; they need to be ordered and shipped. For some reason, at the time I ordered the snack tray, the only place I could get it had it on back order, while everywhere else that had previously carried it last year mysteriously removed it from their catalogs or upped the price by a good $20. 
All in all, I love my stroller and think it's completely worth the expense. Bonus: Isabel seems to like it too.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Let's Talk Toy Storage

A few months ago, we moved all of Isabel's toys onto the lower shelves of a bookcase we've had for almost forever. The space worked pretty perfectly at the time. Everything fit and was mostly in her reach. She would stand up, leaning on the shelves for support and pull down her books one after another, until she found one she wanted to flip through. She would dig out her stacking toys and scatter the pieces across the house. There was always a place to put them back at the end of the night. This is our setup at its messiest, on a Saturday laundry day, when most of the toys were elsewhere.


Ever since the wee one's birthday, however the toy situation has exploded. The bookcase became flooded, messier and messier. We were constantly battling the creeping mega bloks, the carpet of books, the baby dolls under the kitchen table, the walker abandoned into a random corner. Nothing had a proper place anymore. We knew something had to be done about it. It was incredibly clear that the bookcase wasn't working anymore.

Over time, we were also getting thoroughly frustrated as the bookcase became a place to shove stuff. It was already filled to overflowing with books, but it also became the place we would tuck spare soothers as we found them around the house. The pile of board games on top became higher and more precarious. I shoved random notes and papers from school into any little space I could find. The bookcase quickly moved past bookworm cluttered to messy cluttered. It drove us nuts. 

So, a couple weekends back, we emptied it. We washed it down. And we moved it. We stacked up most of the books and moved them upstairs, where they live with 100 of my other books that never did fit. We pulled out our favourites to display. And then we reorganized a bit. We moved the bookcase out of the dining area, and into the living room area, finding the perfect space for it beside our TV stand.


Of course, that left the wee one's mess of toys lined up in a mish mash row along the dining room wall. 


For a couple weeks, I thought we could remedy this situation with a sideboard or something similar. I wanted something we could hide all the toys away in, but something that she could open on her own in order to take her toys out. We wanted it to be long, something to fill the whole wall, or almost the whole wall, and planned to hang shelves above it at some point in the future, in order to bring some of those stacked-away books back down into our space. We searched, taking our time to find the perfect piece. We are in no rush, so there's no need to jump on something that works, but might not cover all of our desires. 

Today though, I admitted that the sideboard idea might really not be that great of an idea. There's not a lot of space between the wall and the table. There's enough, but very little play space remains for the wee one to spread her toys out. Depending on the depth of the sideboard we find, we might have even less. So, back to the drawing board we went, and I think we've come up with an even better solution.

We squished our living room a little and opened up a space between our sofa and the kitchen counter. Honestly, I don't know why we didn't think of this earlier.


This setup creates almost a room for the wee one. At least, to her, I'm sure it feels like a room, three walls around her. Eventually, I hope to find some shelves, or maybe bins, to fit under the breakfast bar and help me keep her toys sorted in some kind of order. For now, the baskets and cloth bin we've been using will be sufficient. One of the best parts of this arrangement? Once we settle down into the living room in the evening, we can't even see all the toys. 


(Poor baby has a little bump on her head. This learning to walk and climb thing is painful. Also, I need to make some clothes for that baby doll we were handed down.)

I'm still contemplating a sideboard for the dining area, especially now that she has a different place to play, but now there's even less rush than before.

Anything else we should think about for toy storage? What kind of toy storage did you have as a kid? Parents, how do you organize and store your kids' toys? How do we prevent this mess from totally taking over our lives forever?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Today


Today.

We woke up in a messy house. I cleaned all day yesterday, so the floor was a little shinier, but there was still mess everywhere.

Isabel had a muffin for breakfast, and then half of my muffin. I drank coffee. Or, at least I drank half my coffee. I can't remember if I actually ate anything for breakfast.

She spent an hour exploring the bathroom. At some point, she found the dental floss and unwound it all from its spool, leaving it in a waxy coil on the hallway floor. She crawled in my lap for a cuddle while I was exploring Periscope. She started a broadcast with her poking fingers. Eight people watched her record a view of our living room couch. At least one of those people promptly followed me on Twitter. (Periscope is weird.)

We took a walk. A nice long walk, hoping she would fall asleep in the stroller. She didn't. I bought a new French press since Mark broke our 8 cupper and a new travel mug to fit in my stroller caddy. On my way home, I met up with a mom-friend and took a second walk. This time, she fell asleep, her head lolling uncomfortably against the side of the stroller.

She napped for half an hour.

We stopped at the park, just for a quick push on the swing and toddle around the wading pool. She didn't really want to be there, so home. She needed a proper nap.

She disagreed. We fought for 2 hours. She won. Usually I win. Not this time. I stared at the clock, waiting for Mark to come home, hoping that today he would be quick. I fed her dinner. I gave her bath. She became manic, giggling, and rushing to climb anything, unaware of the potential to fall.

She fell asleep for the night before 7.

I collapsed on the couch with a Strongbow.

I'm exhausted.

This gets better, right?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Camping with a Baby


On Monday, we packed up our tent for the season. Swept it out carefully, flipped it over on its ceiling so its underside could dry, and rolled it up tight with its poles for another winter of storage in the shed. We love camping; we’ve gone on at least one camping trip every year we’ve known each other. Since Isabel’s birth we’ve gone on three camping trips: once with my parents, on a bitterly cold Thanksgiving weekend; once with a group of friends in mosquito infested Bon Echo Provincial Park; and once, just this past weekend, with Mark’s family.

Let me pause for a moment and be perfectly clear about what we consider camping. Luxuriating in a trailer, complete with running water, hydro, air conditioning, a television with satellite, and readily available wifi is not camping, not even close. When we camp, we use a tent, a little two burner, propane stove, a charcoal barbecue, and coolers filled with ice to keep all our food cold.* We rarely have hydro and even when it is accessible to us, we may not use it. We rough it. We love it.**


Isabel loves it too. We have found that camping with a baby is really not difficult at all, though we have learned a few things during our three separate trips.

  1. Skip the playpen unless your little one is used to it and plan to co-sleep. I know, co-sleeping isn’t for everyone, and since every baby and every couple is different, this bit of advice might not work for you either. But, I found our pack’n’play took up a lot of room in our tiny little car, but Isabel refused to sleep in it both camping trips we attempted it. It gets cold at night while camping, and being all by herself in her little bed wasn’t warm enough. We ended up co-sleeping instead so we could keep her warm, and feeling safe and secure with our body heat. It also made it easy to quickly sooth and nurse when she woke up in the middle of the night, so we mostly managed to avoid waking up our camping buddies.
  2. Related: pack warmer clothes than you think she’ll need. Those fleece sleepers that you’ve packed up because it’s summer? This is the time for them. It gets cold at night while camping, especially in August. If you’re camping in the fall, like we did last year, you’ll want to think about even warmer clothes. I packed Isabel a big chunky knit sweater for cool evenings and even cooler mornings and I was so glad I did.
  3. Relax on hygiene. I mean, a lot. Isabel had the best time while we were camping when we let her roam free a bit, which meant crawling around on the dirt, finding sticks, maybe ended up with those sticks in her mouth, and dirt all over her face. Her clothes got messy and it felt like we were scrubbing dirt out of her hair for a week after, but she was the happiest, most easy-going baby during those hours we just let her go. Of course, not every kid is going to love being grubby. For those kids, bring a big tarp or picnic blanket to play on out of the dirt instead, and, no matter what your kid is like, bring a good stock of wipes to get at least a little cleaned up before dinner and bed.
  4. Stick to your schedule. This one might be tough, especially if you’re camping with people who don’t also have babies. Isabel naps twice a day, once at 9 and again at 1 or so. She eats lunch around 11:30 and dinner around 6:30, and promptly goes to bed right after. Her need to nap and eat didn’t change just because we were camping. One of the days we were gone this past weekend, she fought her afternoon nap, so we gave up – a little too easily – and simply skipped it. By 4, she was almost unbearable and when food wasn’t quite ready in time, we were in melt-down mode. 
  5. Bring a baby monitor. This wouldn’t have worked for us this time around, but in the future, we’ll definitely be adding this to our camping gear. This past weekend, our group included another couple with a baby. It was great to have the girls together, and we love that Isabel has a cousin who is very close to her age. But, our site was well out of ear-shot from their site, which meant that after bed time, it was impossible to have all four parents settled around a campfire at once. Someone always had to miss out. A baby monitor wouldn’t have helped much, since I think the sites were too far apart for it to have worked, and since our site didn’t actually have the appropriate hydro hook-up, but if we had been just one or two sites away, I could have put Isabel to bed and rejoined the party, knowing I could hear her on a monitor if she needed me. Keep this in mind if you’re planning a trip with another family with young children.

I’m actually kind of sad that we’re done camping for the season. Maybe we’ll tag along with my parents on their annual fall trip again. Maybe we’ll take a couple day trips to the beach before the summer is over. Either way, itself definitely time to start planning for next year already!

*I know, lots of you might protest that even this isn’t camping. Air mattress instead of a sleeping bag on the ground? Camp stove instead of boiling water for coffee slowly over an open flame? A car to get to your site? Such luxury!

**We will readily acknowledge that if/when we can afford to purchase a trailer and store it somewhere on our property, we will both be ready and willing to make the change. The idea of a real bed is just too attractive. I won’t call it camping though. I don’t know what I’d call it. Just, not camping.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Musicking: Motherhood, Identity, and Holding On To Both

I have a new toy.


On Sunday, I left Mark and Isabel to fend for themselves for four hours in the evening. I drove myself up to our church in the north part of the city and participated in a couple hours of "musicking", followed by dinner with a few of my musical friends. Part of this musicking involved learning three chords on my very own, brand new ukulele. It was challenging, especially as my fingers began to get a little tender. It was noisy, as 10 or so of us struggled through the beginning stages of learning something new. But, it was fun, envigorating, exciting. I didn't want it to end.

I came home that night to a quiet house. Isabel was sleeping and Mark had just finished watching a movie on Netflix. I settled in and showed him my new instrument and played each of the new chords I had learned. As we talked, we realized this was the first thing I had done on my own in months.


Sure, I run. If you follow me on Instagram, you'll know that I've been training for a half marathon on and off all summer. Often I run with the stroller and bring Isabel along, but I'm even more likely to wait until evening and after her bedtime to hit the pavement with my running shoes. I go for an hour or so, and those runs are a nice chance for me to refresh and recharge, but they're not an escape from my every day.

At the end of the day on Sunday, I felt so much like myself again. I don't mean to say that I am not myself when my days are consumed with Isabel. I don't like that rhetoric, and I hope that I don't set aside who I am for her. I don't believe that's good for either of us. However, I think allowing her world to become my world can sometimes be far too easy, especially during these months when I have no classes, no essays, no group projects that demand my attention. Those few hours on Sunday doing something I enjoy were important to remind myself to hold on to that identity and, in turn, share it with my daughter.


I want her to see who I am as more than her mother. I want her to know that I have a myriad of interests, many of which don't centre around her, and that I'm not shy about continuing to pursue them even as my primary role remains her caregiver. I want her to know what I care about and, in doing so, encourage her to find her own things as she gets older.

We've had fun with the ukulele the past couple days it's been in my hands. I've discovered that lullabies provide the perfect framework for learning new chords and transitions. Isabel loves to touch the instrument as I'm playing, and it's a lot of fun watching her try to figure out exactly how I bring the sound out of the strings. The ukulele is becoming a place, a place in which my role as a mother and my self before Isabel arrived are coming together, melding into one. And that is the way I believe it should be.