Friday, July 31, 2015

Garden 2015: Weeds Galore but also Vegetables


At the beginning of the season, I was very hesitant about our garden this year. If Mark had agreed, I probably would have thrown the towel in on the whole thing and purchased a bunch of rolls of sod instead of seeds for the space. This is the fifth year we've planted, and, over the past three harvests, I've learned a few less than pleasant things about myself when it comes to gardening.

There was the first year. It was kind of haphazard, planted quickly in the middle of renovations and left to neglect. But the carrots! The carrots did so well, we were eating carrot soup for weeks. Gardening seemed like a piece of cake.

I was even more ready for it for the second year, eager to get going. I started our tomatoes and jalapenos in February, silly me, and ended up with bumper crops that were way too big for their own good by the end of April. I even learned about hardening plants off and was thrilled when those plants thrived. We moved our garden from along one fence to the back of the property, built a pretty split-rail fence and put in six raised beds. We did a lot of work that first spring. In the end, we complained about the number of tomatoes we had and allowed so many of them to rot on the vine. Our carrots - which had done so well a year before - were attacked by spiders, so I just allowed them to turn back to compost in the ground. Our beans? We wanted pole beans, but ended up with bush beans, and by the time we realized they were ready to pick, they were already to big. Our lettuce bolted. We let our beds go to weeds.


Our third year, I approached the whole thing with much less eagerness. We were in the middle of renovations on the attic at the time, and the winter had been long, so by the time we rolled up our sleeves and got to work on the soil, we were excited for a change in pace. We thought we could learn from the year before. We planted fewer tomatoes, and just bought them instead of starting them really early ourselves. We carefully selected pole beans instead of bush beans. We bought a sprinkler. We tried container gardening. We gave some of our plants more room to grow and allowed some butternut squash to take over some good square footage. Once again, by July, we let our beds go to weeds.

Last year, our fourth year. Well, what do you expect? I was 8 months pregnant during planting season. I had zero desire to pull weeds. But, we planted anyway, and we didn't even attempt to reign in our ambition. And then, there was Isabel. We let our beds go to weeds, and yet we harvested plenty of beans, plenty of carrots, plenty of tomatoes, even some lettuce and zucchini.


Now, here we our. The fifth year of our garden. From all of this, I have come to realize that I do not have the dedication to garden. Most years, I start off so excited to plant, so excited to see what will come out of the earth for us to eat. Many years I think about the money we might be able to save if we can actually coax enough produce from our land. We try something new every year, learning along the way. And yet, we lack follow through. We aren't consistent enough with weeding. We aren't on top of things enough to get the timing for harvesting right. Half the things we plant lead to nothing.

It can be so frustrating.

So, at the beginning of the spring, I was hesitant. I didn't want to end the growing season feeling like a neglectful failure again. Mark, however, wanted a garden and insisted it would be his summer project. We bought tomato plants, and jalapeno plants, seeds for beets, carrots, radishes, corn, beans, kale, and broccoli. We planted everything. I continued to doubt.


But, despite our neglectful nature as gardeners, our garden didn't let us down and, as I look over our history, I realize that it never has. Seeds know what they're doing. If they can, plants will grow and thrive without the help of a gardener. They don't need us to grow. They provide so selflessly.

These days, the tomatoes, which have collapsed on the tomato cages into a massive tangle of tomato bush, are turning red. The jalapenos are ready to harvest. The radishes are ready to be taken out and replaced with something else, spinach maybe. The carrots are ready for thinning. The kale is ready to be eaten. The beans never came up. The broccoli is doing I don't know what. And the corn has little cobs on it, cobs I have very little hope for, but am happy to see. Every year has some success.

Every year, we will plant a garden.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meal Planning Struggles: Searching For Success

Meal planning does not come easily to me. Does it come easily to anyone? I need to know your secrets. There's something about the task of deciding what we're going to eat for the week that sends all recipes and favourite foods scurrying out of my head.

These days, I'm using two things to help this predicament.

One


Pepperplate is a free meal planning website and app that allows you to import your favourite recipes and turn them into meal plans, menus, and shopping lists. It takes some time to set up, since your account comes empty, with no recipes in it whatsoever, but I'm hoping that, after a few weeks of tracking our meals and recipes on it, I'll be able to easily pull together plans for our week.

Twice now, I've also used the shopping list feature that comes with it. On one hand, it works great, but it's a little more cumbersome than a simple list on a piece of paper, so I'm not sure I'll continue to use it.

Two


This was a simple DIY that I just completed yesterday, so we'll see if it even works for us. I pulled out a very dusty frame that we've had sitting around, doing nothing for ages. It lived in the garage for a while, then found it's way into Isabel's bedroom closet. It was just a cheap frame, and I'm fairly certain the style is still easy to find, but I could have used any type of frame. This one is nice because it has twelve panes to break things up easily.


See what I mean by dusty? And look how young those kids look! Before my hair started to go grey, before Mark trimmed his hair into a proper, professional cut.

I removed the photos as carefully as I could, but most of them had been in the frame so long, they had stuck to the glass and ripped. Oh well; we have the digital files somewhere, sitting on one old computer or another. I used the old photos as a template to cut new paper to put into the frames. At first, I just used white paper, but then, I remembered that I still had a pack of patterned paper tucked away with my craft supplies. Much better than white, yes?


It hangs in our kitchen now, a prominent place to remind me of what we're going to be eating each day of the week. It also contains schedules, upcoming plans, shopping lists, messages, and to-do tasks. I think it doesn't look too bad, but that wall definitely needs more. Some kind of artwork maybe?


Are these things actually going to help me keep to a meal plan for the first time ever? I don't know. Maybe. What do you think? If you meal plan, how do you stick to it in order to avoid waste, and keep your family appropriately fed?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Refrigerator Confessions

My refrigerator is embarrassing.


Today, I cleaned it out. I threw out:

  • One large ziploc bag filled with half a package of macaroni noodles and one head of chopped broccoli, left over from a camping trip we took two and a half weeks ago.
  • One serving of pork chop pieces, left over from approximately four weeks ago.
  • Half a box of baby spinach leaves, wilted, stuck to the sides, and foul smelling.
  • Three half eaten tubs of yogurt, each approximately a month over their due dates.
  • One container of mold-speckled rice salad.
  • One container of leftover rice, veggies, mold, and chicken.
  • One container of leftover linguine and pea pesto. (Maaaaybe it was ok? But it's been sitting in the fridge for a week, and I certainly didn't want to feed it to Isabel.)
The giant bag that went out to our compost bin nearly made me cry. So much perfectly good food, wasted! I know that, here in North America, we waste so. much. food. I know that it's a huge, complicated problem that a fridge full of rotting food hardly matters at all, but I hate that this household is a part of the problem anyway. I can only do so much to be a steward of this world; cleaning up our grocery habits is one of those things. Maybe this $100/week thing will help fix it. Or maybe meal planning will. One way or another, I know we need to fix something.

Suggestions? Tips? How do you avoid wasting all those leftovers?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Progress Report: Plans and Reality

We are one week into our money-saving project. Last week, I read through all of your comments. I was a little blown away by the interest in our project, and all your tips and encouragement will come in handy over the next number of weeks. It seemed pretty unanimous that $100/week is not only doable, but, in fact, pretty normal. So many of you told me that you spend pretty much that amount on food every week. On one hand, this encourages me that our project really shouldn't be that hard. On the other hand, I wonder at how we allowed our spending to get so out of hand that $100/week seems like so little to me.

Last week didn't go as planned. On Wednesday, we found ourselves unexpectedly headed to my parents' place in the country, where we stayed until late Sunday night. This means we weren't eating our own food for most of the week. On one hand, this saved us money. We hardly made a dent in the food we had bought for this week. On the other hand, there's a fridge full of produce that was fresh last week that now needs to be sorted through and some - sadly - tossed.

Knowing that last week really wasn't typical, let's take a look at how we did anyway.

We went grocery shopping last Saturday - before we had even really conceived of the project - and spent just under $200. This means that there will be no grocery shopping again until this Saturday. Everything we bought must stretch two weeks - this week and last. 

I had four dinners planned for last week:
By Wednesday, we had eaten two of these meals. 


Sunday night, I had no plan, but managed to pull together delicious quesadillas from random leftover produce, cheese and salsa. Unplanned, but it may very well have been the best meal of the three days we had at home.


Monday, bean dip. I made it at lunch time and ate it for both meals, and learned one of the most important lessons, one we've been learning over and over and over. Later on in the day, I left the house for about half an hour, and, mistakenly, left the tortilla chips sitting on the counter. By the time I got home, most of them were gone, down Mocha's gullet with Kingsley's help. We ended up eating them with a few crackers instead.

Tuesday, linguine with pea pesto. I forgot about the chicken until I was almost finished the pasta, so dinner ended up a little late and was, over all, a little disappointing. Pea pesto might just not be my thing. Isabel loved it though, which is also important. I had enough of this left over that we could eat it for a quick lunch before we hit the road on Wednesday. 

Obviously, we managed to stay under $100, but not necessarily by our own doing. Life can complicate plans. While we saved this week, it could have easily gone the other way. There must be room for life in our budget, but I believe that, as we continue to save and learn, and handle our budget carefully during normal times, the times when we can't pay attention to it are much more easily managed. 

Now, we're in a new week. I need to clean out our kitchen, assessing what we have and what meals I can pull together from it. Because we've already spent this week's budget, we won't be stepping foot into a grocery store until Saturday. How do you manage groceries when you go over budget one week? How do you keep track of your spending? Any favourite budgeting apps I should consider?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Grandma, 1937-2015


I don't have a first memory of my grandmother. She was just always there, her presence so closely tied to the farm on which they lived. She was always there, bringing home turtles from the pond in a feed bucket, and showing us where the cat had made a nest for the kittens in the straw mow. She was always there, scooping ice cream onto little plates of perfect apple pie slices. She was always there, picking strawberries from her garden by the bucketful and sending us bags of green beans long after we had moved away from home.

On Monday, after a short struggle with cancer that began in May, Grandma died and God took her soul to be with him. She was 77, but everyone - herself included - expected her to live to 95, just like her mother, spry and sharp in thought and memory until the very end. Saying goodbye this week has been one of the hardest, most surreal experiences of my life.

I saw my grandparents all the time as a child, but in recent years, as an adult, I have not visited as often. Now that I can no longer see her at all, I wish I had found the time, the energy to visit from the big city, to sit at her kitchen table in her new house for a cup of tea and a slice of pie, or a lunch of summer sausage sandwiches. There is so much I could yet have learned from her: stories of adjusting to life in Canada; how to grow everything, and store it to feed a family all through the winter; how to make her perfect apple pie.

We will be okay without Grandma. We won't mourn forever. But we will always know what we are missing, what we have lost, and what we will never have in our lives again.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Money Talk: Curbing Spending


Back at the beginning of June, I let my employer know that I’m not returning now that my one year maternity leave is over. They already knew, and in fact, knew from before my maternity leave began, but at the beginning of June, I confirmed it. It was a bittersweet moment, knowing I am on to new and exciting things, but also knowing that I am officially unemployed and that I would not be returning to that office where I spent the first four years of my career.

Now, here we are, halfway through July, and my maternity benefits have stopped. Here in Canada, we are incredibly fortunate to receive a full year of paid maternity leave. It’s not your full income, and for many it’s not even half, but for us it was enough to help us feel comfortable. Now, it’s gone. We’ve crunched the numbers more than once; we’ll be fine.

But, we have to be careful. We need to keep a close eye on our frivolous spending and make smart decisions where we can. Over the weekend, the husband did even more playing around with numbers – it’s essentially a hobby for him – and came up with some numbers that kind of surprised us, and not in a good way. In most areas, we’re doing ok, but when it comes to groceries, our spending has been a bit out of control.

So, for my last few weeks of my 5 month summer break, we’re starting a new project. We want to shave $200-300/month off our spending on food. This includes eating out. This includes the Starbucks grande caramel frappucinos – no whip – that I have a major weakness for. This includes the food that goes to waste in our fridge because exhaustion calls for take-out instead.

Here’s the plan:

We will spend $100/week on food. It seems like nothing, especially considering we've been spending double that on a regular basis. I know it's going to be a difficult number to stick with, especially since it's important to us to eat a variety of nutritious food. At the end of the first two weeks, we’ll reassess this amount and see if it’s actually realistic.

We will follow meal plans. I have tried many many times to create and stick to weekly meal plans. More often than not, they fail and fail in a way that results in even more waste than when I don’t follow a meal plan. Just last week, I threw out a zucchini purchased for a new recipe I never ended up making.

On a related note, we will waste as little as possible. It happens far too frequently that I find myself throwing out large quantities of fruits and veggies that have been languishing forgotten in the back of the crisper. Not only is throwing out food financially stupid, it seems so wrong in a world in which not everyone has enough to eat. Meal planning will help with this, if I can actually stick to it.

We will avoid take-out and eating out unless the budget allows for it. This means we aren’t opposed to delivery from The Friendly Thai completely, but only if we’ve managed to save the cost of it from a previous week.

I will keep my coffee habit in check. You’ll notice that I say ‘I’ in this case and not ‘we’. Coffee is not a big thing for Mark. He’s ok with the free coffee he gets at work, or making coffee at home. He doesn’t care for fancy coffee, and I’m not sure if he’s ever had a craving for an iced coffee. I, on the other hand, love a good $5 frappucino, and when so many park playdates begin or end with a trip to the coffee shop, it’s so easy to give in. I don’t want to say that I’ll give them up completely, but I will limit myself, and maybe begin to explore cheaper, at home options.

We will make as much use of our garden as we can. Our garden is producing well. Some years, we've gotten to this point and let it go to weeds, salvaging tomatoes as they come ripe and a bean or two from the stalk just after they get hard and tough to chew. This year, we want to make as much use of it as we can, knowing that, if done right, a garden can save us money.

I will blog about all this while we go through it. I know, I know. You’ll believe it when you see it. I will too. I know this blog has been very quiet over the past little while. I have struggled with how exactly to keep it going with Isabel in our lives. On one hand, I want to share everything about her life, our life, our little shrunken world. On the other, I marvel at how small it has become and how little there is to say. On yet another hand, I struggle with limits, knowing how much is mine to share and how much is hers. This project though, is something I can write about freely. Blogging about it will keep me accountable, will remind me to stick to the meal plan I’ve put together and provide me with an outlet to talk through difficulties and issues surrounding budgeting and feeding a family. It will give me a chance to gather tips and recommendations from all of you, to learn something from my community along the way. And, maybe someday, this little project will help someone else who is also going through their own season of shifting finances.


So, tell me: does $100/week for food seem reasonable for a family of 2 and a baby? Can you share all your tips and tricks for saving money on groceries? Do you meal plan? How do you remain consistent and stick to it? Give me all your advice!

Also, this needs a hashtag. Suggestions?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Books for Babies: Isabel's Favourite

As most of you know, I'm currently in student in library school, balancing baby and student life for about 7 months of the year. During my winter semester, one of my courses focused on library services to youth and children. Much of what I learned in that class felt so applicable to my life at home with Isabel. I learned how important it is to read to children, even babies. I learned how formative story time can be. I learned about books, and language.

At home, though, I was learning something else entirely.

Research is pretty clear that reading to babies, even wee wee little babies, lays the foundation for early literacy skills. I knew this. I knew this even before I took the class. In theory, I really wanted to read to Isabel. All the time. Every day.

In practice? I suck at it.

Lately, though, I've been getting better at it, and I've been reflecting a bit about my class, and about what maybe I did wrong all those months I spent feeling guilty about not reading to Isabel. I felt like bed time was the only time for book reading, when in reality, there are other times that may work much better for some babies to settle in with a book. I felt like we had to get through every book we picked up in chronological order. These days, I'm much more content to read a page or two from one book, a page or two from another, settle on one page for a while, then get distracted by a stuffed catepillar. Reading with Isabel is much more fun when my expectations for what it should look like are more realistic for a one year old.

I'm trying not to forget all the things I did right too. I went through her little library and pulled out a few different types of books that we use, that have worked for us. We have a variety of books in her library, and some just work better with her than others.


Classics

I picked up that abridged copy of Are You My Mother a few months ago. And, I have a whole whack of Robert Munsch in our collection. These are the kind of books that have been around a long time, that I remember from my childhood. In many cases, there's a really good reason they've stuck around so long. They're good stories, they're well written, there's classic artwork that goes along with them. One of the reasons I'm not very good at reading to Isabel is because - I'll be honest - books for babies can be really really boring. Classics though, especially classics from my own childhood? I can live with them.

Sensory books

Puppy. It doesn't look like much on the outside, and it isn't much to look at on the inside, really either. But it's got all these patches for babies to touch. Fur, wicker basket, bumpy ball. It takes some encouraging, but once she figures it out, Isabel loves to pet this book.

Simple board books

We read board books more than anything else in this house. From the moment she first started to become interested in books, Isabel has wanted to touch, grab, turn pages, rip, or try to. These stand up to the abuse more than any others. These days, she's also able to 'read' books on her own, turning the pages of a board book one after another, all on her own and she loves to do it. Tubby is a fun one with high contrast, colourful images.

Rhyming books

The Jillian Jiggs series fits into the Classics category for me too since I grew up sewing my own pigs. I didn't realize how masterful Phoebe Gilman was with rhyming for children until Jillian Jiggs and the Great Big Snow made its way into Isabel's library. I've got the first few pages of this one memorized because it slips off the tongue so beautifully. A good rhyming book is fun to read to babies.

Moving books

We have a few books with flaps, or spinning parts, but Busy Town is our favourite. There are just a few simple sentences that make up the whole book, but we spend a decent amount of time on each page, letting Isabel examine each scene and showing her over and over how the moving part works.

(Isabel got books for Christmas. She's bigger than this now.)

Books have become an important part of Isabel's play over the past number of months, whether it's her and I cuddling up on the couch with a little stack of stories, or a quiet moment spent on her own surrounded by open pages. I love watching her grow into a reader.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Little Harvest


Our garden has been greatly neglected and yet, it thrives. In the midst of a hard week, the husband and I, with Isabel, took refuge in the labour of pulling weeds, harvesting what was readying to be plucked from the earth, and watering each bed carefully. It was a healing chore. Over the past number of weeks, we have been receiving steadily worsening updates on my grandmother's health, and yesterday, on Wednesday said goodbye to a member of our church community.

Cancer sucks.

But this garden, digging our fingers into the dirt, it grounds us, gives us strength to face what comes next, allows us to think with both sadness and joy about life and death, and reminds us of the beauty in struggle. Our garden is beautiful, weeds and all.

On the day we celebrated a beautiful life, we harvested our first fruits and vegetables. Rhubarb, which I should have harvested weeks ago. Radishes, the same. I left behind fist sized radishes, too spicy to eat, ready to be turned back to compost. Jalapenos, little green fingers of heat. Raspberries, from both an old plant and a new one. And a cup or two of overripe mulberries, shaken easily from our huge mulberry tree.

Here in the garden, we take a deep breath, a moment to be overwhelmed, to be both happy and sad at the same time. And then, we go inside and make muffins.