Kitchen Self-Care

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Meal planning and cooking for tiny people {who insist on eating every.single.day.} can get pretty tricky for moms with big families, moms who work, moms who sleep, moms who swim, moms with purple hair…ok, it’s tricky for a lot of moms. My theory is that the process – of meal planning and shopping sales and chopping veggies and cooking, stirring, and sauteeing and everything that comes with it – is all a lost art. No one around us really knows how to do it. Many moms lack the support of someone to help them embrace the deliberate, ordered steps of planning and preparing meals, so the whole idea seems incredibly daunting and unnecessarily time consuming. The catch is, if  behavior isn’t modeled for us, we miss out on seeing the tangible fruits that come from such a discipline. And so, we lack motivation. Frozen pizza sounds a heck of a lot easier (and oh gosh, IT SO IS. And that’s ok, sometimes!) We tend to scoff at those online who sing the praises of meal planning and the beauty found in preparing a meal. We shrug it off because we “don’t have our sh*t together” like those other moms. We have enough to worry about without adding the stress of meal planning to our already crazy lives. Right? Well…maybe.

As a child, my parents made a point to include me in the shopping and preparation of meals. When I got a little older, it was fun to sit with my dad and chop veggies while sipping wine and listening to old Hank Snow music. My Cajun mom taught me to make a roux, and I have fond memories of the melodious rhythm the metal spoon made as it brushed the bottom of her old Magnalite dutch oven. In large part, I believe these memories are likely why cooking has, over time, become a way for me to relax and wind down. I know it *seems* counterintuitive after a long day, or week, or month, to come home and whip up something to eat. Truly, though, it’s become a way for me to shut out the mental noise in my head. Cooking is a multisensory experience, and often engaging those senses cuts through my mental fog. The methodical, precise cadence of a knife knocking the wooden cutting board; the feel of cool running water over my hands as I wash them with lemon juice and salt to cut through the grease of raw ground beef; the flavors bathing my tongue as I determine if more of an herb might be needed; and of course, the fragrance of the meal permeating every nook and cranny of the house. It’s a gift. It’s a respite. And it’s there for me, every night, if I choose to pursue it.

Listen, I’m not the perfect mom. Far from it. Many nights, supper has consisted of quesadillas or tacos or cereal because I just couldn’t get it together. MANY NIGHTS. After a while, though, I realized part of the reason that was happening so often is because of my recurring procrastination problem. As much as I love cooking, meal planning and I haven’t always gotten along. I love to plan things out, but I don’t love actually setting aside to plan. Once I’m chopping, slicing, and dicing, I love that, too, but I don’t actually love setting time aside to do it. Because naps. Or Netflix. Or reading a book. At some point I realized, though, that my vocation as a wife and mother demands that I try, within reason, to serve healthy meals to my family to nourish their bodies in a timely, consistent fashion. And if I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t trying that hard. Something needed to give, so I started evaluating and thinking and changing my approach to meal times in small, meaningful ways. The challenge has been especially hard since I work outside the home, which means procrastinating exacerbates my problem because I’m physically out of the house for the majority of every weekday. That means I had to pre-plan the prep work, too.

Meal planning means less take out, healthier meals, more money in my pocket, and less of the foreboding, existential dread that comes with trying to figure out dinner on the fly every night. All of those positives impact my mental health for the better, even if that comes at the cost of more work at the outset. Anything that helps my mental health? Yeah. That’s totally self-care, baby. My husband is incredibly supportive and easily does half of the cooking in our home, too, so it’s a team approach that leaves neither of us feeling burnt out.

I’ve tried a few meal-planning websites in an attempt to bring my love for cooking into the 21st century, but in the end it ended up being a lot of extra work and time on the computer that was ultimately just frustrating to me. The system we have stretched and grown into – more or less, depending on the chaos of our schedule – ideally [but not always] looks like this:

  1. Sit down on Sunday afternoon with coffee, wine, or a glass of iced tea, my favorite playlist, and let the kids either nap or watch something on TV so I can be relatively focused. It’s important for me to feel comfortable and as stress-free as possible while I plan. Time in service of my family does my soul a whole lotta good, and no one said that service has to be stressful! I might diffuse my favorite combo of essential oils while I’m working (right now, I’m obsessed with bergamot + orange + sage + lavender.)
  2. Evaluate the grocery store ad online and determine the main types of meats/fruits/veggies on sale.
  3. Meal plan based on sale items using our tried and true faves (like tacos, fajitas, spaghetti, beans) and include one night of leftovers and one night of a quick/easy meal (like breakfast for dinner, quesadillas, or sandwiches.) I print out a weekly meal plan template and fill it out, then it goes on the fridge for all to see. This way, everyone knows what’s for dinner and they don’t ask me about it a jillion times that week. Well, the illiterate ones still do…
  4. Find a few new recipes. Most of our menu is comprised of familiar foods, but when I’m itching for something new I go to allrecipes.com and browse for ideas there. Of course, I have Pinterest boards with recipes that I sometimes try, but Allrecipes is my go-to in a hurry because they consistently have tons of ratings from people who have *actually* tried the recipes, so I know off the bat whether the recipe is unclear, is too involved for the family schedule that week, or just tastes terrible.
  5. Create a shopping list on Kroger ClickList, and order groceries for pickup either the same day (though I try not to, because Sunday) or Monday after school. Utilizing this service costs an extra $5/trip, but I save way more than that by eliminating impulse buys. Alternatively, I let hubby go shopping because he enjoys the time to himself and he has better self-control than me 
  6. Chop veggies as soon as they arrive home and toss in containers to use throughout the week. Rinse and pick grapes off vine and put in a container for the week. Peel and cut up things like canteloupe or pineapple.
  7. Saturday is often when I schedule meals that need to cook for long periods of time or require extensive prep work.
  8. Every night, I try to remember to look at the menu to see what we’re having the next day and take out appropriate meat from the freezer to defrost. This gives me an added safety net in the morning if I do forget to take something out – I check the menu in the morning, too.
  9. I thought the Instant Pot was all hype. It’s not. Get one. Life-changing. Takes some trial and error to learn to use it, but it has saved my hide!!

As my kids grow, I’m beginning to allow them to work alongside me. Their help has lightened this load considerably – I set the older ones to work chopping and shredding, and the younger ones pick grapes and tear lettuce for salads. Not only do these jobs make the kids feel important, they’re learning now how to cultivate a healthy approach to meal planning and cooking. That’s a lesson worth passing on!

Don’t know how to cook? Start asking around and find a real-life friend who does. Invite them over for a night of cooking their favorite easy meal, good conversation, and your favorite bottle of wine. Let them pick the playlist and roll up your sleeves. Introverted? YouTube some beginning cooking videos. The great thing about kitchen work is it can be as solitary or communal as you want, so do what works best for your learning style AND personality traits. Learn by doing, a little at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your family cooking culture doesn’t have to be, either. You’re gonna make mistakes. You’re gonna slice a finger. You’re gonna burn a meal. Twice. That’s why God made Pizza Hut, people.

Think you don’t have time for all of this? I thought that, too. Confession time, though: while I love social media, I *don’t* love the inordinate amount of time I spend mindlessly scrolling various feeds, no matter how beautiful. Go install the FreeTime app on your phone and after a week, look at your total time spent on social media. That escape from life you’re craving when you open Facebook or Instagram? You can escape into the experience of meal planning and cooking AND get a dopamine hit there, too. Service of others and nourishing your soul aren’t mutually exclusive activities. In fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. Nourishing your soul helps you serve others better, and serving others nourishes your soul.

What’s your system? Do you meal plan? Or you orchestrate your family meals another way? Tell us about it!

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