Stuck in the meal planning rut: when you don’t follow your own advice

fullsizeoutput_1669.jpegIn January, I started my third year of a cooking challenge to work my way through the food in the freezer and cupboards. I’m still at it because I am in a meal planning rut. Think of it as the home cook’s version of writer’s block. Just like words, the ingredients are all around but not coming together in any sort of satisfying way.

Visiting with my sister over the weekend, I quizzed her about her subscription to Plated. I was really intrigued, but with so many stores in town that will deliver my groceries and a fair amount of food already in my house, I probably don’t need a service that delivers the ingredients with the meal plan.

I had a subscription a few years back to The Fresh 20 which got me out of a previous meal planning black hole, and later I used a simple DIY method. Too bad I don’t stick with my own advice.

I surfed the web and found there are even more meal planning service options now. The Fresh 20 (no affiliation, just a happy former customer) still would be my favorite; it’s closest to my cooking style, uses unprocessed food prepared in a way that reduces waste, and isn’t overly complicated. Your mileage may vary. Happily many services will give you a free sample week, which is a great way to try out several and see which one works best for you.

100 Days of Real Food has some meal planning resourcesWisconsin Whisk bloggers have an impressive recipe output that can help me get unstuck. Hip Foodie Mom posts healthy meal plans on her blog. The Leek and The Carrot is thinking meal planning lately too! I’m saving online recipes in my Evernote account, and I have some cookbooks specifically to help with meal planning.

I guess I’ve come to rely on the garden and farmers’ market for inspiration, but in February, those seem like a daydream. I’d love to hear what meal planning tips or services have worked for you. I am going to put my meal plan in my bullet journal – but don’t google that or you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of fancy pages. My meal plan will be full of scribbles, arrows, and if I break out of my rut, crumbs and food stains.

The light and the dark

IMG_4074.JPGThe first time I got interested in making yarn was in my tween years. I was already doing some crocheting and knitting when my family adopted a Samoyed puppy from the local shelter. Some months after, I saw a newspaper article about a woman who was spinning her Samoyed’s fluffy undercoat into very warm yarn. This may sound strange if you are a fiber arts muggle, but many animals adapted to harsh climates have very warm fiber undercoats that can be combed out or gathered in some way. IMG_0297Think of those musk ox I am so enamored with, but also bison, yak, and a dog breed from Siberia. The article promised the Samoyed fiber would not have that “doggy” smell even when wet. I made a very basic spindle and consulted a spinning book. I had exactly zero luck teaching myself to spin our dog’s hair, probably to the relief of everyone around me who thought it was just a bit too weird. I put the book and spindle away, and that was that.

Until the late 1990’s anyway. I don’t recall what, if anything, in particular made me suddenly interested in spinning. I had my job, home life, and some engrossing hobbies (horseback riding, cooking, knitting) so it wasn’t like I needed something to do. Maybe it was my enjoyment of knitting with wool. One day I found myself at a local shop buying a spinning magazine. I did some reading, played around with a homemade spindle again, and eventually got myself a “learn to spin” kit with two colors of wool fiber and a hand spindle.

After more trial and error, I made a lumpy but continuous strand of yarn, and I felt like I could do magic. I went to a workshop on using hand spindles, and that helped so much! More spindles, a wheel, lots of spinning books, and a few wheel spinning workshops followed over the next years. I’ve never had a lot of time to devote to it but treasured it all the same.

Spinning takes my mind to a peaceful and quiet place. I won’t say that it’s meditative because I’m not trying to clear my mind. Maybe stilling or freeing are better words. It’s handwork that lets the mind go, allows effortless reflection, and sometimes leads to surprising understanding. For me, that’s as great as making yarn from scratch. It’s probably why years later, I have yet to follow yarn recipes and instead dabble in different techniques and mostly make come-as-you-are yarn.

Almost seven years ago, we lost a close family member. Shortly after learning illness would take our special person, I remember having the fleeting thought as I walked past my spinning wheel that I would really need inner stillness in the months to come. But instead my spinning left me.

I would see my wheel in the corner of my bedroom and think that I could get up in the night and soothe myself enough to sleep. But in 8 months or so of terrible sleeping, I never once did. Maybe I had no energy to move from my bed, so very tired in every way.

Mostly though, I think I was afraid to be too still, to open myself to whatever feelings would be waiting in that inner quiet. If I didn’t go there, maybe the messiness of adjusting to my new day-to-day would shield me from some of my pain. I kept knitting and discovered my bereaved brain couldn’t grasp complex patterns. When I commented on this perceived failing to friend and knitter/dyer Jaala, she gently pointed out that I didn’t need to be challenged in all areas of my life at the same time.

Good point. I rediscovered the simple pleasure of knitting square and rectangular things like scarves and dishcloths. When I felt like I couldn’t do anything else, I looked at pictures in fiber arts books and magazines over and over. I read a lot more than I had for years: cookbooks, garden books, Jane Austen, Harry Potter, science, science fiction, historical fiction.

I tried to spark my interest by selling my wheel and buying a different type. It still mostly gathered dust. I sold that wheel and tried to just stick with spindles; that might have worked if I’d understood then why my spinning had left. Eventually I bought another wheel that I love. By that point, I had figured out that I wasn’t having an equipment problem.

My dear friend Alene, who knows me very well, never seemed to lose the faith: she kept me supplied with a steady stream of spinning fiber at birthdays and Christmas, usually mixed in with things related to food, Doctor Who, or both. After a very long time, I found myself spinning occasionally. I moved my wheel and kate back upstairs, unearthed my spindles, and bought some fiber. Healing comes so very slowly and with the help of so many, but I let it come. With it, to my very great surprise, came my spinning.IMG_1043

Chex mix and podcasts: fuel for a creative holiday season 

 Snow is falling again right now, and I’m grateful for a chance to regroup and recharge indoors after a busy summer and fall. For starters, homemade Chex mix is WAY better than store-bought, especially if made from this recipe and using Cheez-its Duos (sharp cheddar and parmesan mixed together) for the cheesy crackers. Annie’s Organic Worcestershire Sauce is vegan, so my vegetarian family member dug right in too.

For company on your snowy commute or as you busily prepare holiday treats or even just do your housecleaning, may I suggest some podcasts? They spice up even ordinary activities and give listeners all kinds of creative ideas. I listen on my phone using the Downcast app, but you can listen straight from your browser too. Here are a few of my current favorites:

The Feed with hosts Rick Bayless and Steve Dolinsky

5 Minutes on the Farm, a local food podcast featuring a different southern Wisconsin food producer each week (monthly over the winter)

Prairie Girls Knit & Spin. “May your drafting be consistent and your gauge never lie.” If only.

Woolful, interviews from the fiber world

The SweetGeorgia Show, color, craft, and creativity

and always, Science Friday! Because science. Love it.

I’d love to hear what your favorites are. Please share them in the comments.

How spelt flour changed my baking life

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I’ve tried whole-grain recipes for baking from time to time with mixed results. Substituting whole wheat for half the all-purpose flour worked in a lot of recipes. For quick breads, I often did well substituting whole wheat for all the all-purpose if I added in a little extra liquid. Sometimes I had tried whole wheat pastry flour, sometimes white whole wheat, sometimes “regular” whole wheat.

Sandwich breads calling for some or all whole-wheat flour often tasted too strong to our family or had a not-great texture. If I limited the substitution to no more than one-third of the recipe, then it worked much better. Oat flour worked in that way too (it’s not hard to make your own oat flour out of rolled oats if you have a food processor) and made me wonder about other non-wheat whole grain flours.

Last winter I saw a recipe for spelt pizza dough on the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day blog. I love their pizza and flatbread cookbook but had somehow missed that recipe. I bought a small bag of spelt flour to try it out. It was a hit with the whole family; we find the spelt mild-flavored and delicious without being overpowering.

From there, I moved on to the whole wheat biscuits from 100 Days of Real Food, but substituted spelt flour for all the whole wheat. Yum, and the kids gobbled them up too. I went to my beloved New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day cookbook and used spelt instead of whole wheat in the 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread: another winner! If you are looking to add some whole grain into your baking, give spelt flour a try.

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Five years of blogging!

On October 21, 2011, I pressed “Publish” on my first post, Adventures in wool dyeing.pablo-2A lot has happened in five years!

90 posts, the most popular of which was my May 2014 review of the stash2go app for iPhone and iPad

4 recipes: ground cherry salsa, savory potato, easy sauce from roasted tomatoes, and improvised cream cheese pockets (chicken & vegetarian versions)

1 free knitting pattern

A fair number of garden layouts that didn’t last

A lot of experimenting to find the right balance of gardening/CSA/farmers’ market as sources for produce

A three-year old picture of creeping bellflower in my yard three years ago with the caption “volunteer bellflower” with no irony at all (it is pretty-but ah, such naiveté … followed by the devastating discovery that is a really, really invasive species)

An easy way to dry herbs

Tips for success with your CSA box

A lot of happiness from growing and cooking with local food (especially my homegrown herbs and berries), talking blogging with friends, and building my cookbook collection

Recurring struggles with making creative space, finding family balance, setting goals that are challenging but not crazy-making, and getting spinning back into my life

A pattern of circling back to natural dye plant gardening and yarn dyeing

65 finished fiber arts projects of various sizes (no clue I was that productive, absolutely no clue. Ha, just said that to my daughter, who said it sounded about right and lovingly mocked me bringing my knitting everywhere. Ahem, anyway, thanks to Ravelry for making it easy to keep tabs)

9 frogged fiber arts projects (plus some that never got far enough to get on Ravelry in the first place)

Guest appearances on the blog by crochet, weaving, felt making, and needlepoint. In an ideal world, I’d be good at sewing, have time for it, and use Grandma’s sewing machine for more than mending!

And just in the last year or so, some developments that help me look forward to the next five years: Wisconsin Whisk welcomed me to their blogging collective, my blog got a new look and domain name, and thanks to a Whisk blogging workshop, I’ve gotten lots of advice and encouragement for additional improvements.

Thank you, readers, for your support! Stay tuned for my new challenges: whole grain baking, more food preserving, my fiber arts activities as part of slow fashion, and a deeper dive into how gardening, food, and fiber arts interconnect.

Garden to table Autumn 2016

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Sometimes having a garden is a lot like having a cat: who’s really in charge? Late summer and early fall are a time of overlapping harvest as the summer vegetables aren’t always done before some of the fall ones are ready. It can be hard to keep up! My food garden is heading for even lower maintenance next year: berries, new asparagus (planted this year, but no harvest for 2-3 more years), garlic, herbs, and kale.

Kale is a gardener’s dream: it’s not much bothered by weather and, if left to its own devices, can self-seed. I had cabbage moths flitting prettily around my yard. They decimated the broccoli in its container, but the kale only suffered a few holes. Finches frequently landed in the kale, sometimes as many as a half-dozen birds at a time, and pecked enthusiastically, so I think I can give them credit for natural bug control.

A garden of raised beds and containers worked great for our needs. It certainly makes the weeding easier and reduces critter problems. My daughter had great success with beans and carrots in containers. The carrots were a nice surprise since carrots never grow well in our heavy soil when we plant them straight in the ground. Our three sisters garden got a late start, so we’ll try again next year. We may even try to use the cold frame (which got a mention in a recent Mother Earth News article) to get a much earlier start on the corn.

The rest of my garden was a mixed success. The tomatoes grew very large and tipped their support cages over, but many of the fruit were diseased. The cherry tomatoes were healthy and non-stop, hurrah! We grew enough green beans to freeze a few, and the jalapeños were roasted and frozen for later use also.

As Megan Cain reminds readers in her book, Super Easy Food Preserving, we don’t have to grow all the produce we want to preserve. A lot of days there’s not time to both garden and cook. I miss  food preserving and want to do more cooking from scratch year-round…

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So I’ve been planning to do more preserving from the farmer’s market. That’s assuming I can manage to not use up every bit of the goodness I get there!

img_3828 My upgraded landscaping has taken more time than I expected and has more weeds. Some of the volunteers are edible (like purslane and lambs quarters), and one is a dye plant (pokeweed). Many of the weeds are outgrowing the perennials I’m starting. Some volunteer sunflowers are always welcome. Morning glories went nuts, climbed everything, pulled some sunflowers to ground, and nearly toppled the new clematis trellises. Since I have morning glories elsewhere in the yard, I have tried to remove them from the clematis, which would have been a better idea in spring. The thing about gardening, though, is that there’s always next year.

What’s sparking joy?

img_3782  Before we pitched the tents in the backyard for practice, heck, even before August started, I had some moments of reckoning. Apparently I am a thick-headed student of the creative life. I’ve written several times about finding creative space in life, but I lost track again of my top ten (would this be on my top ten list of how I should be spending my time?) this summer. It was time to stare out into summer evenings and think about why I was feeling stressed and grumpy because when mama ain’t happy…well, you know how that goes.

I blamed my feelings of being rushed on the constant shuffling of family schedules and driving kids around and the sense of not getting things done on mosquitoes and the rain that fed a million weeds. Let’s be real. Leaky faucets, uncooperative caulk, drainage problems during heavy rains: the Yarnstead home has as many of those things as most 50-year-old houses. Aiming for balance requires constant adjustment. I get big plans, push myself to do more than is possible, and then bleh, stress becomes a more constant companion than creativity.

I didn’t think about how I’d felt that way in the past and what I’d done to feel better. Blaming is a waste of time; it keeps you from noticing all that you got done, gratitude, and  the therapeutic power of weeding (really! visible accomplishments, hands in the dirt, breeze on your face). So, how to get back to that top ten, how to recapture the focus I came back from Alaska with last year?

Think about what’s sparking joy. Yes, that reference is from from a KonMari-ing friend (thanks, J!),  but for me it’s not just about decluttering stuff. I will not be so busy. Do less, and don’t get stuck doing things because I’ve always done it that way or haven’t found time to think through what I really want to spend time on. Notice that you often do have enough time. Then follow it up with 4-5 days away from home, preferably away from electronics and out in the woods or at the shore. Soak up the restorative power of nature, and come home recommitted to your goals.