“no groceries” update 1: planning ahead

On my mind a lot is the point when I will have no more fresh produce. I’ve been anxious about it. I almost cooked the spinach I have, though it will last a while so I’ll leave it be.

IMG_3108In the name of not letting things go bad, I decided to make one of our favorite soups (Rosemary Red Soup) for dinner on Tuesday night. Already, I’ve noticed how much more I think about advanced preparations. It’s not as if I was leaning on prepared foods or takeout, but, knowing that it “won’t be an option” to pick things up at the market, it all seems more weighted. I want to use everything, I want to waste nothing. I had everything needed for this soup (wrong kind of lentils and wrong kind of miso, but that didn’t matter) and we all love it. The recipe would make plenty to freeze for another day when I didn’t have time to cook. So, great, right?

IMG_3109I got to work. I’m chopping away, proud of myself for gathering the ingredients first as I have a tendency to find out 3/4 of the way through I’m missing something essential. And, well, it turned out I did miss something essential. “Lower heat and simmer 40 minutes.”

I needed this soup for the table in a total of about 30 minutes, including prep time. Duh. It’s not a long-simmering soup, but getting it ready in time for dinner wasn’t going to happen. I kept on with it and will use it for our next meal.

This left me without a dinner plan, so I scrambled and came up with this:

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That’s leftover salmon, a tortilla with melted cheese and salsa, carrot sticks, and some Romaine lettuce with mayo. It’s a little embarrassing laying out for all the Internet what I gave my daughters for dinner. But, sharing this is part of what I want from this experience.

“Coming up with dinner” takes mental energy and planning. It’s not a simple thing that takes no time. Add the stresses of bills barely paid, health problems, and work deadlines (let alone more significant issues I don’t face, like violence in the home, children struggling in school, or active addictions, etc.) and “coming up with dinner” is a major emotional drain.

Why do people make unhealthy or expensive food choices? Convenience is my first answer. Second is “I know my kids will eat it.” I happen to have children who are relatively great about eating, but, at the end of a terrifically long day, spending time cooking food knowing the children may find it inedible can feel overwhelming.

So, the bits I’ve learned already:

  • every trace of food seems more important. I have half-drunk cups of milk my daughters didn’t finish sitting in the fridge to use for my coffee, for example, that probably would’ve ended up down the drain last week;
  • planning and deciding what to cook and how to best use the ingredients on hand takes time, and that’s not just time in the kitchen, it’s throughout the day as meals approach or planning for the days ahead;
  • I already made an exception and let my parenting partner bring oyster crackers, ginger ale, and pedialyte popsicles to our daughters because they were sick. It felt a bit like a cheat, as I would’ve gone to the market for those things if I could’ve left the girls at home to do it. I have a supportive ex- and that means my daughters don’t have to only rely on me for their love and care, and for extra food when the need arises;
  • I’m out of coffee and haven’t yet decided if getting more coffee counts since I generally get it at Starbucks and that purchase goes toward my credits for an eventual “free” fancy drink. We’ll see… I did put together fixin’s for chai tea concentrate, so, maybe I’ll get my caffeine there.

I’m barely a couple days into this and already I feel hurried and worried. Trying to stay in the present moment (where we have plenty of food) is already a challenge. My refrigerator and shelves are full to bursting, but instead of just feeling grateful for that I feel especially stressed about making the best use of all of it so it will last as long as possible and will be the most healthy and delicious. I’m living in a deeper awareness of the time required to manage food and sustenance.

our “no groceries” challenge

Last week, several bills came due at once and I wasn’t sure I had money enough to cover the checks I was sending out. It was scary, again.

Things are much better than they were at the worst point of these financially challenging times. However, despite my ex-husband’s continued generous support, grantwinners.net’s growth, and a gift my daughters got to help with summer camp, I’m still not financially stable. In fact, to cover the cost of preschool and childcare for the summer (still not all paid for), I had to withdraw the savings I had set aside from our tax refund. That savings needs to be there for when my 2002 Subaru decides it’s time to go. That savings isn’t there anymore. The checks cleared, but it was another eye opening experience. The possibility of having no money at all, again, was terrifying.

During those few days where I wasn’t sure how things would work out, I decided I’d better not go to the grocery store if I could avoid it—I have dried and canned goods in the pantry, and previously cooked frozen foods in the deep freezer. I could make do for… how long?

At that point, I started getting a little excited. I realized that if I see it as a freely-chosen challenge, rather than depravation borne of necessity, I feel enthusiastic about “winning” the not-spending battle. It’s an enormously useful reframing of a previously terrifying situation.

I decided to see how long I could go without going to the grocery store. I don’t mean that we’d starve or even really be uncomfortable. I’m a good cook, and, like I said, we have a lot on hand. I talked to my daughters about it and mentioned some items we didn’t have and how my one concern would be fresh vegetables, fruit, and milk. My older daughter suggested one more trip to the market to stock up on what we needed and then we’d start with our challenge.

Yesterday, I made a run to BJs, using up my foodstamps for the month, and made the last of our purchases for… how long? I don’t know.

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I will eventually buy milk and, when I do, I might sometimes go to the shelf where they sell the not-pretty but perfectly good fruits and vegetables if we are out. I will use foodstamps for that. I also expect when the time comes that I do need to go to the grocery store, I will have accrued some funds in my foodstamps account which will help me stay on the path to almost-stable financial ground.

I’m going to post updates about the experience here. I realize people all over the Internet are publicly tracking their experiences with private and personal goals. Usually, if “everyone is doing it,” I find it unappealing. But, this is something my daughters and I are doing together (my older daughter okay’d several of the school lunches she had X’d out previously) and it’s something I’d like to be mindful of as we go along. Writing about it here will help me.

Knowing me, there will be exceptions to the “no grocery shopping” rule beyond buying milk and bruised fruit. There will be issues I haven’t considered. However, the idea of spending almost no money on groceries because we are using what we have feels empowering. I’m feeling motivated and energized by all the creativity it’s going to require.

gratitude update

It’s been just over a year since we moved into this apartment that now feels like Home.

Before that, we lived in “high density housing” (American for “poor people’s apartments”) where we were as happy as we could be. It wasn’t because my daughters walked in on a couple guys smoking not-tobacco and not-marijuana in the stairwell, or because of the dealer who camped out on the back stoop, or because of the unsupervised children so desperate for adult guidance their behavior was not always safe, or because the man who lived downstairs disturbed me so much that I told him if he spoke to my daughter again I would call the police—this is the same man who invites those same unsupervised and hungry children to his apartment for snacks after school. None of these are the reasons we moved. We moved because we could. My parents have money and they paid for our move. That move put our lives back on course and the course is good.

The last 4+ years have been difficult. Rocky. Challenging. Full of lessons. Any way I say it, it sounds white-washed. There were times I wasn’t sure I would make it. If you know me well, you’ll know that means it was really bad. Normally, no matter how bad things get, I’m like Pippi calling up to her mother in Heaven, “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll always come out on top!”

Just over four years ago, I was pregnant and our marriage was ending. Then, we had a second child, the very new baby, and our marriage ended. We declared bankruptcy. We moved (me to Brookfield/”high density housing” and him to Orono, a decision I supported). We began sharing custody of our children over the hurdles of physical distance. We readjusted from married-forever to being loving friends who co-parent. Add to all of this many other events, happenings, choices, and significant difficulties that all brought me to the content for my newspaper column, being “newly poor.” All of that also brings me to now.

I’m writing this because today I had a really good day. I’ve had a lot more of them lately. There are many reasons for that, but there’s a distinction for me between having a good day and having a day where the light at the end of the tunnel is so close I’m almost in it (and, I’m now sure it’s not a train).

This wonderful home, some outstanding help in my business (life-changing for me, though she won’t let me give her so much credit), high quality preschool for my nearly-four-year-old and an excellent public school for my nine and a half year old, a spiritual community we love, and heaven on earth (my parents’ summer place near Bethel) to visit in the summers. There are other outward expressions of how much better things are, but I want to keep this relatively brief.

So, I’m tired. I’m very, very tired. Despite my ex-husband’s incredible co-parenting and generous support, I’m still a single mother. Being a single mother is a job I could only understand after living it. I love it, but it’s not easy. At the same time, as I said, work is going well. The column is the job I’ve dreamed of since the 90s when I was writing, “It’s all about me! (the column)” on my website every week. I’ve made several new paintings (not shown on my website) and will be showing them at Bard in time for First Friday in April (they’ll still be there for First Friday in May, too!). My daughters are extraordinary. More and more often, my gratitude nearly overwhelms me. Life is good.

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advantages.

Helping my older daughter with her math homework, I was struck by what an advantage she has. I’ve always enjoyed math, so learning how it’s taught these days has been fun. (It’s taught differently than when I was a child.) I thought about families where the parents don’t have the time or energy or motivation to get involved in the math homework. Even more than that, I thought of the families where the parents want to help but simply don’t have the skills.

My daughter has parents who are involved and academically skilled. Combine that with her luck at being born with a brain that works very well, and she will probably have continued success in school. Children who need help (what child doesn’t?) with parents who aren’t able to help their children with math homework will have a harder time. If they don’t catch up later in life, they will probably become parents who can’t help as well, etc. Advantages and disadvantages. What a cycle.