Monday, December 22, 2008

Resistance is Futile: Greene Eating

I've gotten a jump start on my 2009 Resolutions here at Greene HQ.  Turns out that the simplest, easiest, most obvious thing is the one thing I wasn't doing.  In fact, I was opposed to doing it.

What's that, you ask?

Menu planning.

It just seemed, oh I dunno - boring.  Confining.  Planning menus meant admitting that I was the only person responsible for feeding myself and three other people every day, day in and day out, except when Franklin stepped up to guest chef on the weekends.

But since I've started planning, my life is better.  And so, here's my list of Ten Reasons to Love Menu Planning:
  1. Without any real effort, we've cut our grocery spending by about $25/week.  Our bills were inching up, slowly and steadily, to $125/week and often more, not counting Franklin's forays to pick up the paper and a few necessaries on the weekend.  And not counting the $12 spent on locally delivered milk, cheese and eggs.  My weekly bill now averages closer to $90 - including holiday indulgences.
  2. Our bills will continue to shrink.  The first week I spent a mere $65 - because I planned around what was in the pantry and freezer.  I've always stocked up on some things at sale prices - mostly granola bars and cereal - but now I'm using the same principles for menu staples.
  3. My weeknights are far less stressful.  Instead of standing in the kitchen in a panic every night around six, I know what to do.  And it's easy to think to defrost something the night before when I'm looking at my weekly list of menus - no more coming up with a Plan B because the chicken is frozen.
  4. We're eating more varied meals.  In a pinch, I reach for whole wheat pasta.  Freddie won't eat it, and Franklin would rather not eat it every night.  But a little bit of thought has turned up more meals that the whole family enjoys.
  5. Shopping is faster.  This is huge.  I started menu planning when my daughter was about six weeks old.  Shopping while wearing my daughter in her carrier is enough of a challenge.  If I had to think about what we needed?  Forget it.  We'd be eating take out every night.
  6. We're eating healthier ... errr ... we will be.  One of my biggest challenges is getting veggies into our diet.  We all voluntarily eat fruit, and we're not opposed to vegetables.  But when you're a novice cook, it can take some doing to plan balanced meals.  Over time, I think I can easily push our veggie consumption way up.
  7. I don't even think of eating out.  Okay, that's not entirely true.  But I used to long to just walk down the street to a restaurant, where they'd have variety and someone else to do the dishes.  By planning everything in advance, I rarely get the urge to eat out.  In fact, eating out seems harder than eating in - the opposite of my old thinking.
  8. Freddie is learning to cook.  Cooking with a four year old has its challenges, but I'm amazed at how much he can do.  This is the best part of the process.  B.M.P. (before menu planning), he was playing alone in his room, out of my sight - or maybe parked in front of the TV or maybe begging for Goldfish crackers and string cheese under foot - while I cooked.  Now?  He's stirring something and telling me that he's "bein' a Top Cef."  Menu planning allows me to think about how he can help and plan accordingly.  As a bonus, he seems to always eat what he cooks - not true of meals that I prepare without his involvement.
  9. I'm learning to cook.  Yes, I cooked before this.  But I didn't really know how to do much.  By planning, I can evaluate what I know and what new challenges I can take on, slowly expanding my skill set.
  10. It's green!  Okay we're still not subsisting entirely on a diet of locally grown veggies and probably never will.  And we'd already reduced our reliance on take-out dramatically.  But now I'm learning how to reduce our reliance on convenience foods, choosing less processed options.  And that is a huge step for me - a step towards healthier, less chemically intense products and meals.
In a month, there have been just two nights this completely fell apart.  One night, I had picked out a new recipe that required putting the skillet in the oven to finish the dish.  Our skillet isn't oven-safe.  D'oh!  I tossed together something else and Franklin used the ingredients from the abandoned dinner over the weekend.  (He really is quite the cook.)

Another night we were off to have our family picture taken for the church directory and honestly?  I fed the toddler, nursed the infant and decided that the adults would have to fend for themselves.

I'm pretty amazed that it's gone this well.  In addition to meal planning, we've turned out homemade cupcakes for Freddie's birthday (the cupcakes were a mix, but the frosting was from scratch); chocolate chip cookies from scratch and banana bread from scratch.

Resistance is futile.  Menu planning has changed my life.

Now what else have I been refusing to do?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fern Versus The Families

I could write about how Franklin and I are sometimes at odds on green matters, but the truth is that we're more or less in accord.  (Yes, I think Franklin is a bit generous with the indoor heating and he's baffled by my reliance on pre-packaged convenience foods.  But we're pretty much in sync overall.)

The people who challenge us are our extended families, in equal measure.  While my brother-in-law is excited to be receiving a Sigg, my little sisters - women I love beyond measure - are hopeless shop-a-holics, doing their part to keep the consumer economy afloat.  They scoffed at the idea of alternative gifts and much prefer their coffee in paper cups and purchases in store-issued bags, thanks very much.  About their only eco-savvy activity is trading paperbacks back and forth.

As for my husband's family, that's not so much a case of wanton waste, but of a cultural emphasis on gifting.  It's unthinkable to show up to someone's home without piles of presents, regardless of whether they're needed or desired.  And they have set ideas about the right amounts of money to spend.  A few days ago it hit me like a bullet - his aunt had spent a fortune on wedding silver for us (no, we didn't ask for it; yes, it's lovely; no, we never use it) at a time when her husband was scraping together freelance work and they couldn't afford to replace their only car.  This is a sense of obligation that runs deep and defies logic.

The outcome of all of this is as follows:

1.  Gift giving is frequently catalog ordering, one-step removed.  If we're trading Amazon links for our desired gifts, we're not quite in the spirit of things.  Why don't we just buy ourselves new coffee mugs and let my sister pay for her own sweater?

2.  Most creative gifts end up at Goodwill.  My sisters often choose things that I find charming, but they're rarely functional items that I keep forever.  We loved our daffy, hand-painted margarita glasses - but faced with paying to store our belongings during a long distance move a few years back, they got the boot.  The real beneficiary of their generosity is the local thrift shop - and that's too bad.  I suspect my efforts meet the same fate.

3.  We're just swapping gift cards.  This is almost worse than #1, though it's less wasteful than #2.  In recent months, we've bought some cool place mats from Crate & Barrel and a small television set from Circuit City thanks to gift cards.  But we still have $500 or more of unredeemed gift cards in the desk.  Franklin argues that it's wrong to use them for gifts for others, though last year I did just that.  (We had $15 left on a Pottery Barn card that went towards books for Freddie.)

4.  We're ignoring what's really meaningful.  The only gifts my mother has kept through the years are the ornaments her children made in elementary school.  When my grandmother died, I was amazed to learn that she still had some felt-and-bead monstrosities I'd sewn with my inexpert little hands decades back.  I believe they went on her tree every year, in places of honor.

My mother has finally declared that all of this is silly, and that we ought to be jointly supporting a charity.  She started out by dispatching my super-shopper sisters to find gifts for a few residents of a local nursing home.

I have hopes that my husband might be able to reach a similar deal with his brother.  My husband's parents find this idea ridiculous; again, it's cultural and therefore we're hesitant to push too hard.

I'm happy to exempt children from this, mostly because each year I've been able to find unusual and clever creations from museum gift shops and local artists.  My red-headed niece received a purple tutu last year; this year she's getting her name embroidered on a pink cupcake apron, both courtesy of small businesses.  It takes some pre-planning, but I feel like those gifts are worth giving.

In our own little home, our Christmas has gone quite green, with an emphasis on celebration and seasonal activities rather than on mindless gift giving.  But it's sometimes tough to get beyond your four walls.  

With each passing year, Franklin and I have simply pulled back.  We're spending less on gifts and we're trying to put as much thought as possible into them.  But I often feel like a miser at this time of year.

Lots of green bloggers seem unfazed by their family's reactions, but to be perfectly honest, it still represents a struggle for me.  Do we just keep on violating our values and judgment - or do we rock the boat?  So far we're going with incremental change - but we might be at the logical limits of how much we can do without Having The Talk.