July 2016

Lucy and the boys

Experiencing Life and Death

Our family had to say goodbye to our eleven-year-old dog, Lucy, this past week and it was way harder than I expected it to be.  Lucy was our first and only family pet and Joe and I got her just after we bought our first house together and three and a half years before we had kids.  So Lucy was a big part of our family and had been around for as long as the kids could remember.  Even for us, Joe and I realized that Lucy had been in our lives for a full third of the number of years we have been alive!  Yet, as with so many things in life, I am finding that the kids are showing me the way and also providing me with the comfort I need to deal with my grief. 


It is my belief – based on my observations of our kids as they have experienced life and death over the past few years – that when children are raised in an environment where they are educated about life cycles but also are not shielded from the death portion of the cycle, they will be more respectful of life around them and more resilient when they need to be. 


Over the past few years on our homestead, the boys have witnessed and even participated in the humane harvesting of some of our rabbits and chickens.  Just before we begin, we all say a prayer of thanksgiving for the animals’ sacrifice before harvesting them and putting the meat away in the freezer.  And when we serve the rabbit or chicken meat at dinner, the boys are both thankful and proud of their role in providing meat for our family.  


Similarly, as the boys perform their daily chores, they realize that by feeding the chickens and rabbits and helping them to grow today they are helping to put eggs and meat on the table tomorrow.  It’s a cycle of life that is more natural than we might be led to believe if we were not raised on a farm or around animals.


When we experienced what I like to call “The Great Chicken Massacre of 2016” back in the spring, I was the one to walk outside and find three chickens dead and mangled and two chickens badly hurt but still alive.  I couldn’t stop the tears from coming and I felt intense sadness for the chickens that I knew were in pain and would need help from us to stop that pain.  But the boys were there to comfort me and explain in more practical terms that this is the reality of life and death when you are raising farm animals.  And they were also the first ones to offer to help reinforce the chicken coop so that a predator could not gain access to our chickens again.  They respect and protect life whenever possible but also realize that death is an unavoidable part of life.


As we walked out of the vet’s office after being reassured that it was indeed time to let Lucy go, tears were streaming down my face and all three boys looked up at me with wide, caring eyes and then closed around Lucy and me in one big group hug.  On the drive home, they asked many questions about what was happening with Lucy and how she would die and what would happen to her afterwards.  (These sort of discussions about life and death are always much harder on me than they are on the kids.)  Our oldest son suggested a location for a burial plot in our woods and offered to help dig the hole.  The younger two offered to gather stones to mark the spot so that we could always remember where Lucy was buried.  And in the week that followed that vet appointment before we returned for the final appointment, I often found the boys petting Lucy and talking to her lovingly, saying goodbye in their own way. 


It is my strong belief and my deepest hope that because our children have been respectfully exposed to life and death from an early age, when they grow up and are faced with things like factory farms using inhumane slaughter practices or the overfishing of our rivers and oceans or human/animal cruelty of any kind, they will know immediately that these practices are wrong and might even have the courage to stand up and speak up and do something about it.  And when they buy meat at the grocery store or farmers’ market, they will understand and respect where that meat came from and be thankful that they are able to enjoy it in a meal.  And when they are faced with hard decisions or situations in their life, they will be more resilient and will be able to see the big picture of life and death on this earth.  We’re already pretty sure that at least one of the boys is going to be a biologist or ecologist or geologist…or something else with -ologist at the end of the name!  One of the other two is currently trying to decide between being a farmer or a priest.  Tough decision, kiddo.  But seriously, whatever they decide to do with their lives, I know that they will be (because they already are) some of the most caring, empathetic, respectful human beings that I have ever known.    


If you are nodding your head to anything that I’ve said here or just want to read a similar perspective in the news, check out this article by Joel Salatin that appeared in Mother Earth News magazine earlier this year.  He puts it much more eloquently than I did and with more experience behind his words.


Rest in Peace, Lucy.  We will remember and love you always.

last day - Lucy, Joe, and the boys


we miss you, Lucy!



Simplified Meal Planning

Simplified Meal Planning

I have always enjoyed putting together weekly meal plans or planning out a themed meal with recipes that complement each other.  In fact, this activity was the initial inspiration for Cozy Cuisines, the personal chef service that I started with my friend and fellow lover of food.  We used to plan out these elaborate meals and choose several recipes that we thought would go well together and then get together on a weeknight after work and cook it all together over a bottle of red wine.  It felt so rewarding to be able to start with this seemingly random pile of groceries and turn it into a delicious meal.  I still love that feeling!


So even after the Cozy Cuisines era came to an end and I was no longer preparing large quantities of food for other families, I continued on as a personal chef of sorts for my own growing family.  And I still love providing healthy and delicious meals for people.  I think it comes from my partly Italian mother to whom FOOD = LOVE.  <3  However, the constant demands of parenting small children and running a household can interfere with my idea of “from scratch” cooking.  In an effort to make everything fit into a busy family schedule, meal preparation can often take a backseat and we end up serving prepared meals out of a box in order to get food on the table.  I recognize that there is a time and place for such options and I certainly use this when necessary.  But I have found that regular meal planning (I do mine once a week and I know others who do it once a month) can greatly reduce the reliance on prepared foods and quick-fix dinners. 


For what it’s worth, here is my simplified method of seasonal meal planning…


Once per week (usually on a weeknight because I find weekends to be too chaotic and unpredictable), I sit down with my recipe binder, my cookbooks, my favorite food blogs and our calendar and I plan out our dinners for the following week.  During the growing season, I might also have a sticky note with a list of the fresh produce already in our fridge or in our garden or on the way from our weekly CSA pick-up or available at the local farmers’ markets.  In the old days, I would then sift through countless recipes in my cookbooks or online and choose mostly brand new recipe combinations for each night of the week.  As you can probably imagine, this would take me hours to figure out – not to mention the time it took to then prepare these elaborate recipes at dinner time.  Not exactly sustainable when you only have approximately 1.1 hours per week available to you for any and all quiet, uninterrupted activity. 


After reading a book called Simplicity Parenting, I switched it up a bit and now we have a weekly meal schedule that goes like this:

SUNDAYS – grilling night in the summer, soup/stew night in the winter
MONDAYS – pasta night
TUESDAYS – stir fry night (or a rice-based dish)
WEDNESDAYS – soup or seafood night
THURSDAYS – salad or frittata night
FRIDAYS – pizza night
SATURDAYS – wild card or “try a new recipe” night


Even on the busiest of weeks, this new planning method allows me to take any fresh produce that is in the fridge and throw it into the menu in a quick and easy manner. 


[On Sunday, we might thaw out some chicken and grill it up with some fresh zucchini.  On Monday, I might just toss some pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil and some mozzarella.  On Tuesday, I might chop up some peppers and onions and mushrooms and thaw out some chip steak and stir fry it all up to serve over brown rice.  On Wednesday, I might thaw out some salmon and grill or broil it and serve it with some quinoa and some fresh green beans.  On Thursday, I might throw together a frittata with garlic and green onions and bacon and potatoes and cheddar cheese.  On Friday, I might chop up the leftover grilled chicken and make a homemade BBQ sauce and have a BBQ chicken pizza.  On Saturday, I might try out the latest recipe that I saw on My New Roots or 100 Days of Real Food.]


These are mostly summer ideas coming to mind right now because I’m writing this in the heat of summer.  But you can imagine how you could do the same thing with seasonal produce in the spring, fall, or winter. 


Once I have my plan in place, I record it in a document on my computer where I can refer back to it throughout the week to remind myself of what’s for dinner each night.  In addition, I also keep a handwritten piece of note paper on my bulletin board that lists any individual action items for each day of the week.  For example, I might need to thaw two pounds of chicken on Monday, soak one cup of black beans on Tuesday night, cook the beans on Wednesday morning, etc.  Many times, I even do all of the chopping required for a meal either the night before when the kids are in bed or early in the morning when things are still going relatively well in the sibling fighting arena or during naptime for our youngest son.  [Also, I LOVE slow cooker meals because it shifts the emphasis on cooking to the night before or the morning of rather than during that horrible last hour of the day before dinner when everyone is tired and hungry and cranky and generally out of patience.]  When the cooking tasks are broken up and recorded as daily reminders for me, it helps me to manage my time better and allows us to eat fresher, healthier options instead of just grabbing for something already prepared and loaded with preservatives or additives.


I realize that not everyone may be as interested in cooking or as obsessed with planning as I am but I hope that anyone would be able to take something away from this meal planning method and be able to simplify their lives.  The main points to keep in mind are:

  1. Planning ahead eliminates the stressed and rushed feeling of “What’s for dinner?!” and allows you to be more conscious of what ingredients are included in your meals.
  2. Planning the meals on a weekly or monthly basis can help you to rotate the individual ingredients (meats, grains, veggies, etc), which will give your body a break from too much of things that may be harder to process in large or consistent quantities, such as red meat or wheat or dairy.  You can also be more intentional about doing things like having a meatless meal once or twice a week.
  3. Having a basic outline of nightly themes (pasta night, pizza night, etc) takes a lot of the guesswork or research out of the planning process for you.  [I am working on reorganizing my recipe binder into pasta recipes, rice-based recipes, seafood recipes, etc to make it even easier for me to quickly choose my recipes for the week.]
  4. Having designated “nights” for your weekly menu outline can add some consistency and dependableness to your lives that you and your kids will find refreshing and comforting at the same time.  [Now when the kids ask me “What’s for dinner?”, I can quickly and confidently respond with “Today is Monday so it’s pasta night!” and I get a lot less complaints about the menu because it’s sort of just the way things are in our household.]
  5. Breaking each dinner into manageable steps throughout the day or week will help you to have a timely dinner on the table without feeling rushed in the end.


I do realize that although I call this a “Simplified Meal Planning” method, it may be way more complicated than what you are currently doing.  I guess I called it that because this is what I arrived at after years of trying too hard and acting as though I were planning out the menu for a gourmet restaurant rather than a family of five where anything resembling gourmet would be lost on our children. 


However, if even this feels like too much for you to start with, some things that can help you to implement this meal planning method are to make sure you set aside time every week for meal planning (20-30 minutes would be great!), regularly stock your fridge and pantry with fresh produce and other basic ingredients that you will need for your favorite recipes, keep your freezer stocked with meats and seafood packaged in the quantities that you need for one meal, and start a collection of family favorite recipes that you can flip through every week and pick out what works best for that time of year and your weekly schedule.  Trust me, a half hour of meal planning will be time well spent and will make the rest of your week go so much more smoothly! 


Good luck and good eating!