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!)
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)
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!