Friday, May 13, 2011

Life’s messy, risky adventures can bring great satisfaction

Drippy snow cones, unwieldy light sabers and crowds of people aren’t exactly a prescription for a parent’s happiness. But it’s a gleeful combination if you’re a kid at the circus.

Our 3- and 5-year-old boys waved those light sabers with wild abandon, and our 6-year-old joyfully wore remnants of a sticky snow cone from her neck all the way down to her toes. Even our youngest babe watched dancing dogs and horses with rapt attention, jabbering about the raucous display in front of her.

I wasn’t exactly looking forward to sitting through the two-hour show with four small children. In fact, I would have rather been at home, where there was at least the possibility of relative quiet. But had we stayed home, I would have missed the gleam in my children’s eyes as they took in the high wire act or each relished having a snow cone all to themselves.

There’s no question that the circus is messy. But being afraid of life’s messes and clinging to the safety of the ordinary can deprive us of some of life’s best moments. The point of stagnation, when we aren’t willing to embrace new and unfamiliar experiences, can be a major roadblock to happiness.

I find positive change often happens when I’m a little uncomfortable and when I’m willing to take a risk. Sure, there have been many times when I literally don’t have a clue what I’m doing, like when I decided to take a solo (and somewhat impromptu) backpacking trip to Europe. I’d never been outside the country, but when the opportunity to travel abroad presented itself, I took a leap.

’ll never forget sitting in London’s Heathrow Airport, staring at the ticket desk and wondering if I should just purchase a return ticket and go home. Despite my fear (and not having a single plan made), I stayed for the entire month and trekked across three countries. I made new friends, saw some of the most amazing sites of my life, and learned a tremendous amount about myself and my abilities.

I’ve experienced the same kind of satisfaction from doing something as simple as planting my first garden. I’d never grown a single thing before that first venture, but that year, I ended up with a bountiful harvest and a new passion for cultivating the earth that has stuck with me ever since.

I even count learning how to make my own hamburger buns as a rewarding experience. Homemade buns aren’t a revolutionary idea, but this small kitchen success has buoyed my confidence and encouraged me to make more food from scratch. My family eats better food, and we save money in the process.

Even if you can’t plunge head-long into a new adventure right now, you can tackle a small hill - even a hill as small as making homemade buns. That adventure may not turn out quite as you had planned. But this doesn’t mean that the unexpected (and often messy) moments aren’t worthwhile. In fact, they often end up being the very best moments of your life. What small hill can you tackle today?

Monday, May 9, 2011

A simple plan cuts the cost of wasted food

For the past two weeks, I’ve been staring down a small container of cherry tomatoes. They haven’t spoiled, but they are definitely past their prime. I don’t want to throw them away, but a dozen lackluster tomatoes aren’t inspiring my inner chef. Plus, I feel a twinge of guilt when I think about wasting food, particularly when we devote such a large portion of our budget to feeding our family.

Having a trio of backyard chickens has made it possible to redeem almost all of our kitchen scraps, and I work hard to use up the food we have. Still, I know I could do better with things like the aforementioned languishing cherry tomatoes. I’ve even been known to avoid opening food storage containers in my refrigerator because I’m afraid of what might be lurking inside.

What’s even more frightening than unearthing furry food is the cost of wasting it. According to the USDA, Americans throw away about 14% of the food they buy; some other independent estimates put that amount closer to 25%. If my family’s experience rings true—even to the more modest estimate—we’re literally throwing away $70 every month, or $840 a year.

I could think of a lot of ways I’d like to spend $840 this year—but wasted food doesn’t make the list. Becoming more intentional with my food dollars and my cooking habits will help ensure that more food gets used, and less is discarded. There’s nothing revolutionary about the plan I’ve sketched out for my family, but it will help me make the most of what I have.

First, I will recommit to creating a weekly meal plan and writing it on the family calendar. Doing so allows me to take stock of ingredients I already have, and plan meals accordingly. (Plus, a meal plan avoids “what’s for dinner?” tension at the end of the day.) For example, I have some small pieces of ham and a bunch of boiled eggs leftover from Easter, so I’ll prepare a chef salad. I also have a large tub of ricotta cheese (and those leftover tomatoes) lingering in my fridge; I’ll put both to use in lasagna.

Second, I want to have a specific purpose in mind for everything I buy. Contrary to traditional budgeting advice, I don’t shop with a strict list. My grocery list includes staple items I need, such as spices and baking ingredients. Otherwise, I shop for what looks good at the best price. Last time I went shopping, for instance, organic beef was on sale for half price. I hadn’t planned to buy beef that day, but I scooped up the last four packages, knowing that I could freeze it or use it to make sloppy joes and taco pizza.

Designating a specific spot for leftovers in the refrigerator is another easy-to-implement strategy that I’ll employ. If I know that all leftovers are on the top, right-hand shelf, then I’ll be able to look past the tubs of homemade playdough and the cartons of eggs to see what we need to eat first.

Lastly, I want to find more uses for leftovers and food past its prime. I’ve always thrown away broccoli stalks, but I know they’re suitable for stir frying, soups, and frittatas; I just need to get in the habit of using them. Carrot and onion peels, wilted celery ribs and other vegetable miscellany will be put to use in homemade broths, rather than going to the chickens.

This plan will take effort, but I’m looking forward to less spoiled food, less cherry tomato guilt, and to stretching my food dollars further.