The Mediocre Kitchen

As promised, here comes a post about how I have started converting to minimalism and intentionality in my house and life.  While the first thing that I tackled was my wardrobe, it’s the one that I’m still most dissatisfied with – I feel like I’m in a really liminal space when it comes to my wardrobe, so my closet reflects that “temporary” feelings (I am still nursing… but probably not for too much longer during the day; I’m going back to work… but not until September; it’s freezing and whythehelldoilivehereagain… but spring is *maybe* coming).  So as much as I am FAR happier with my wardrobe right now, I’m not quite ready to do more than post the occasionally glimpse on Instagram.

But my kitchen!  It’s still also a work in progress, but I had no idea going into this how much this would change my life.  Cooking and baking used to be activities that I really enjoyed, and where I was very experimental and, admittedly, quite messy.  Cooking for and feeding my toddler and baby, however, has been far less fun.  Actually, I could easily accuse it of being the main source of most of my day-to-day anxiety (tied with the Sisyphean task of laundry for a family of four).  I had a pantry that was overflowing with STUFF and a fridge and freezer loaded with food that I couldn’t make meals out of – and that usually ended up getting thrown out.  Usually, we would look in our fridge, be unable to put anything together into an actual meal, despite the amount of food we were looking at, and then we would order in (I swear that Skip the Dishes knows us by name at this point).  So I was doing groceries (and paying for them in time and money) and then STILL ordering in food.  Once in a while, my husband would get overwhelmed by the fridge situation and just throw everything out, and we would start all over again.

Part of the problem going in was that I cooked off the top of my head.  I’d decide “tonight I should make risotto!  And tiramisu!” and off I’d go to the store to buy the specific ingredients for these recipes.  I’d make them, love them, leave my kitchen a total disaster, and fill my pantry and fridge with one-off ingredients that would languish there for several years before I’d be like “um why do I have a dusty bottle of Grand Marnier in the back of my pantry?  when did I even buy Grand Marnier?  was this a gift?  which 90-year old gave us this?” before trying to pawn it off on one of my senior family members, with fingers crossed that it wasn’t them who gave it to me in the first place.  Through this, I had acquired everything from a jar of what might once have been truffles, to 4 different kinds of curry powders, to various bottles of alcohol, to bottles of condiments with labels in languages that mean I literally don’t know what’s in them.

But no more, friends!  No more!

We live in a fairly small house, and we don’t have a lot of pantry or cabinet space, so what space we have is at a premium.  That means that the first step I had to take was to completely clear out my pantry and fridge and start fresh.  The challenge, though, is that I’ve DONE that before.  I had to rethink it and be more intentional about it.  So before I decided to do a big clean out, I decided to change the way that I was thinking about cooking.  I have done meal planning before, but in the way where I’d go through cookbooks or websites and pick 5 dinners that looked yummy and then buy all of the things I’d need to make those recipes.  I don’t deny the appeal here – I am not a food utilitarian.  I love food.  No, you’re underestimating it.  I LOVE food.  I have literally planned trips around food.  I have decided on which friendships to cultivate based on food.  I have, in a concrete sense, decided that eating delicious food is more important to me than losing weight (I’m serious.  I’m a size 8 who was formerly a size 2… but I had to struggle to stay at a 2/4 by really restricting what I ate and by making myself do exercise in a way that I don’t enjoy.  Now, I am very happy and consistent at my size 8, because I let myself have pain au chocolat with my morning espresso and a chunk of camembert whenever I feel like I need it).

My new approach worked like this: before I emptied out and reorganized my pantry, I needed to figure out what actually NEEDED to be in my pantry.  What items do we use again and again?  What items do we keep that we don’t use?  THEN, I figured out how to organize those items that we really use, and I went about it slowly and deliberately, making space for those items, so that I can easily see them (and therefore am more likely to use them) and so that we know when we are out.  It’s not written in stone, and it’s still a work in progress, but certainly this has allowed me to streamline and simplify both my groceries and my cooking.

Secondly, I re-thought my meal planning.  I decided on two things: 1. I HAD to have a plan.  No more staring at the fridge and figuring out what the heck to cook.  and 2. those meals had to have some consistency to them, so that I can re-use the same ingredients and don’t have to spend as much time thinking through things week-by-week and day-by-day.  But, let me stress, I cannot do the same meal every night.  And I can’t abide by the super plain, boring food that my husband and toddler seem to like.  So it had to be exciting (to me), consistent, and easy (like 30 minutes top to bottom).  Sadly, there are more conditions that I have to honour, like that my daughter is, y’know, 2, and while I believe that she should eat what we eat because I am not going to add “short order cook” to my already packed job description, I need to take her palate into consideration.  I sometimes give her palate more credit than it deserves, and I have to learn from those experiences going forward.

From there, it took a couple of months of trial and error.  Some experiments were crazy successful, like having my daughter help me make dinner whenever it was possible, and help serve it wherever it wasn’t possible for her to help cook.  Some experiments were significantly less successful, like my curried salmon stirfry, which we thought was delicious and which my daughter thought was worse than starvation.  After the trial period (let’s be honest, my life will always be in the trial period), I was able to sort out that my typical week looks something like this:

Monday: vegetarian option (meatless monday!)

Tuesday: tacos

Wednesday: salmon or chicken

Thursday: chicken or salmon

Friday: Pizza (we go to nonna’s house on Fridays for her homemade pizza and have been doing this for a decade- bless her heart for hosting six children and their 5 grandchildren every week)

Saturday: pasta

Sunday: Wild Card (i.e. leftovers, sandwiches, or order in)

All of these meals HAVE to have a protein, a carb/starch, and veggies.  My daughter (luckily) does not shy away from any particular category, though she obviously has likes and dislikes within each one.  From within this framework, it’s actually really easy.  I like to try out a fun recipe at least once a week, but try to pick something that doesn’t require me getting a bunch of random ingredients.  We really like Italian and Asian flavours in particular, so I usually stick with those palates, with the occasional branch-out to French or Indian/Thai.  We also don’t eat a ton of red meat, as you can see.

Once I had this laid out, the rest came about a lot easier.  My grocery list is already 80% done before I even start: I know I need chicken, salmon, whatever meat I’m using for my tacos, and lean ground something for my pasta.  I always get a bunch of whatever seasonal vegetables I know I can get my daughter to eat (right now it’s a LOT of cauliflower, beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips etc. because it’s winter, but in the summer, it’s more greenery and asparagus).  I need rice and potatoes (usually baby potatoes or red so I can keep the skin on and boil them quickly if I need to).  I also ALWAYS have garlic, onions, ginger, coconut milk, and the ingredients for tomato sauce.  I know a handful of solid recipes that I know my kids and husband will eat, and then I mix it up a 1-2 times per week so that I don’t get bored.  Any time I make something adventurous, it’s with the idea in my head that it MIGHT get added to the rotation, if it proves to be simple, delicious and not too expensive to add to the consistent grocery list.

After I had nailed this down and done a few weeks of work with it, I realized that I could pretty effectively organize my pantry.  I bought wood crates from Ikea, labelled them with my principal ingredients, and suddenly my pantry looks all fancy.  Now, I have saved even more time because I don’t have to really think about my grocery list and (thank you, sweet sweet progress) I use grocery delivery or pickup services.  So on Sundays, I just spend 10 minutes putting it all on my online grocery bill and it shows up at my house, or I pick it up, the next morning for the week.

So there you have it.  In a strangely ironic twist, the less I have in my pantry and fridge, and the more deliberate I am about what’s there, the easier it is for me to cook quick, healthy, and delicious meals.  I swear to you that my mealtime stress has been reduced to almost nothing because of this change.  Now my mealtime stress is related to my daughter wanting to eat her dinner sitting on the ground in the closed pantry, which she has proclaimed “the Yukon” and my internal voice whispers to me “choose your battles… one day you’ll tell this story at her wedding.”

What do you do to simplify your mealtime routine?  Is it as chaotic and stressful for you as it was for me?  I’ve sort of gotten used to the fact that things that are hard for me are often easy for other people because I am a walking ball of loosely bottled anxiety.

And, if you’re interested, my favourite cookbooks and blogs for delicious and quick meals are Half Baked Harvest (her blog and her book are just… wow) and Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks.  I also follow a few healthy mom food-bloggers on insta.  I’ll do a roundup on there for those who are interested!



Mediocre Mom

Minimal Embrace

Catchy title, hey?  I know, I’m a nerd.  Sorrynotsorry.

So today, I’m going to take a minute (or many minutes) to talk about something that has been on my mind an awful lot recently: minimalism.  I know that it’s having a moment, but even for my dislike of trends, I feel that it’s an important movement in North America.  I specify that because minimalism is only (and can only be) a trend on a continent that is as focused on materialism and consumerism as we are here.  In other parts of the world, there isn’t even a word for the way of life that minimalism represents, because it is so fundamental to day-to-day living as to not be worthy of a moniker.

I am not a minimalist.  My husband would laugh long and hard at me calling myself one (or, rather, he’d snort in the sort of mild amusement that all of my fanciful claims about myself are greeted with).  I am, as the french would say, a “slob.”  I love stuff.  And things.  In fact, stuff and things have, for the vast majority of my nearly 32 years, been my favourite.  I shop habitually.  I buy with the sort of impulsivity of a toddler.  There is literally no resistance between my “I want this” thought and the squeezing of my trigger finger.  I know my credit card information by heart, and my Canada Post delivery person by name (shout out to Frank, yo).  In addition to my shopping addiction, I am a hoarder.  I am a firm believer that “one day” this L-shaped wrapping paper cast-off will be the perfect shape for wrapping something, and nearly everything that I own becomes imbued with some sort of emotion that makes letting it go feel impossible.

But having kids has changed things for me.  Or at least, it’s STARTED to change things for me.  You don’t realize, when you bring home a baby, how very much STUFF is going to come along with it.  And then, when you’ve wrapped your head around how much stuff a baby comes with, you hit the toddler years and remember how naive you had been when you thought a BABY came with a lot of stuff.  And, to top it all off, you’re actually HOME to see all of the STUFF all of the time!  In our house, my husband is a natural minimalist.  His design sense is most kindly described as spartan, and he so regularly throws things out that one time, when my daughter couldn’t find her bath toy, she legitimately said to me “mommy, maybe daddy throwed it out?  Should we ask daddy if he put it in the garbage?”  (for those wondering, yes.  Yes.  He throwed it out.)

But what we can’t bring ourselves to throw out finds its way to our undeveloped basement (affectionately referred to around these parts as “Mordor”) where they simply wait, cluttering up our house’s subconscious like Norman Bates’ mommy-issues.

And so, increasingly over the last two years, I have found myself with a growing sense of restless discontent.  I did not, at first, associate it with my cluttered existence, and searched around aimlessly for its root source.  Was I unhappy in my job?  Was it that I was unfit for parenthood?  Did I need a new hobby?  I settled on the fact that our house is too small and too removed from nature and blamed that entirely for how I was feeling.  If, I thought, we only had more square footage, I would be happy.  If we lived near the river valley… or walking distance from shops… I’d be happy.  I expressed these beliefs to my husband, and we began planning to house hunt.  But it was in these conversations that I really started to analyze WHAT was making me unhappy.  What was making me want to move?  Our stuff.  I was trying to escape our STUFF.  I was unhappy because I was living in a world centred on the belief that I would be happy WHEN and IF something happened.  If you know me at all, you know that I am like an introverted bloodhound – a veritable Sherlock Holmes of my own interior landscape – so once I realized this fact, I started the hunt to find the root issue and suss out a possible solution.

When I looked at why I was unhappy and restless, it had a lot to do with the stuff in my life.  My house was too small and not decorated the way I’d like, my closet was full of clothes but I had nothing to wear, I didn’t have enough time and energy for the activities that I love doing, and I always felt stressed about money.  As I reflected, I realized that this had a lot to do with my attachment of happiness to things.  Like that I couldn’t buy myself skinny, but I could buy myself the magic pair of pants that would make me FEEL skinny.  I couldn’t buy myself confidence in my parenting, but I could maybe find the perfect toy for them that would make me FEEL like a good mom.  I had a hole inside of me and I could feel it, but I thought that maybe I could fill it with THINGS and it would go away.  Sadly, all of those things were only making the hole worse.  I didn’t have time to read during the day, because I had mountains of laundry to do.  I couldn’t bake, or paint, because our house was a mess – and cleaning takes forever when every conceivable surface is covered in stuff.  I wanted to put on clothes and feel good about myself, but I’d stare at a closet full of clothes that were just not QUITE right and end up throwing on the same pair of broken in denim and an old sweater and feel like a slob all day.  The stuff I was buying to try to keep myself happy was actually accomplishing the opposite effect: I was more unhappy BECAUSE of my stuff.

I started thinking about my kids.  Do I want to raise them this way?  So that when they are 32, they look at their lives and think, “I could be happy if only I had x and y?”  No.  I don’t want that for them.  I don’t want them to feel the sort of vapid emptiness that I felt when I looked around my life this past fall.  I want for them to know contentment and gratitude.  I want them to know peace, and to accept themselves as they ARE, not as they might be, if only they were to _______________.

I was happy as a child.  Incandescently so.  I was restless, sure, but in the passionately restless way that all children are – before age slows that youthful restlessness of body and spirit into stagnation.  My memories of childhood are sepia-toned and exist in a perpetual summer, where I still harboured the belief that, if I swung hard enough, I could swing all the way around the top bar of the swing set.  My memories aren’t of toys, or things (with a few very notable exceptions); my memories are of time well-spent and well-wasted.  Of times where boredom flourished into imagination, and adventure was always at hand.  Where I had no fear of failure, because every try was a success in and of itself.

I want that back.  I know, though, that I can’t have it again, in the way that it once was… I’m older now, and life is no longer a sepia-toned summer.  But, if I try really hard, maybe I can give my kids those same memories to anchor them and inspire them.  Memories that aren’t bought and paid for in cash, that don’t happen in a bigger house, or in a fancier car; but that are bought and paid for in time and focus.  In attention to the world as it is now, and in a deliberate savouring of these precious moments we have been given.

I need to find that time, that gratitude and focus, that intentionality.  I think it’s here somewhere, buried beneath all my stuff.  I am, as of these past few months, clearing things out to make space for those moments to be found and, at times, I have seen those hidden moments glimmering in the newly empty spaces in my house; I feel the tantalizing hints of fullness in my heart that I have been searching for.

I hope to share more about this in future posts – what I have done so far to live with less and to simplify, and what is to come for this aspiring minimalist and (hopefully) reformed mindless consumer.  Stay tuned.



Mediocre Mom