Protect Your Edible Investment

This rainbow is a healthy investment.

Eat a rainbow every day!

Have I mentioned how much I hate grocery shopping? The crowds. The lines. The screaming kids (usually my own). The screaming moms (usually me). The reckless cart drivers. The prices. The physical labor. The MATH! …

Fortunately for my hungry family, I love to eat more than I hate to grocery shop, so I do it anyway. However, I’m not willing to suffer this torture more than once/week if I can help it and, by golly, it’s gotta be worth the effort. This means wasting as little as possible of what I buy. I’m not lugging all that stuff home just to feed the fruit flies or to let it rot in the fridge!

Besides, have you seen the price of fresh produce recently? Eating healthy requires a significant investment of both time and money (neither of which I have in abundance), and protecting that investment is key to successful consumption (something I enjoy). Otherwise, you may as well just throw those apples in the trash as soon as you get home. Let’s face it, work is work…whether you pick those apples from the orchard yourself or pick through them in the produce aisle. And I, for one, want to do as little of that as I can get away with.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of extra time or effort to lengthen the life of your produce. You’ll not only make up that time (with interest) later, but you’ll be more likely to actually eat all the yummy, healthy goodies you lugged home. As soon as you get home, wash and dry your lettuce, fresh herbs, “bowl fruit” (apples, oranges, etc.), grapes and berries before putting them away. They’ll be ready to eat/prepare when you want them, last longer and look more inviting.

If you have the time, go ahead and bag up individual portions of fruits and veggies before putting them away so that you or your family members can grab a healthy snack any time. I find that non-organic cut bell peppers, celery, carrots, and cucumbers will stay fresh for up to a week if stored properly in the fridge. This saves me oodles of time on lunch preparation throughout the week, because I can bag it up as soon as I get home from the store and then just toss it into the lunch boxes each morning. (If you shop organic, the shelf life may be shorter, so you’ll have to figure out what works best.) One cutting board + one knife + one time washing them and putting them away = three reasons for this busy/lazy mom to smile.

Just to be clear, I don’t wash everything before I put it away…just the things I’ve found make a difference. Here are a few tips that have worked well for me:

  • Do not use detergents or chemicals, but adding white vinegar to the water (at least 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water) will help kill most bacteria and remove pesticides without changing the flavor.
  • Make sure everything is as DRY as possible before putting it away.
  • If towel-drying, always use a fresh, clean dish towel or paper towel.
  • The water should not be more than 10 degrees warmer than the produce.
  • If submerging, use the tub of a salad spinner rather than the kitchen sink, as the drain area of the sink can harbor yucky stuff you don’t want to eat!
  • Spin leafy vegetables and fresh herbs dry after washing and store in an airtight container or zip-top bag with a paper towel to absorb any excess water. (I store my lettuce in a large Tupperware container with a paper towel on both the bottom and on top and it will stay fresh for at least a week.)
  • Tear lettuce rather than cutting it with a knife, as cutting may cause it to brown.
  • Remove grapes from stems and rinse thoroughly. Lay on towel in a single layer and allow to air dry completely before bagging.
  • Berries must also be completely dry before storing in an aerated container (not airtight).
  • Dry “bowl fruit” completely after washing and keep it out of direct sunlight.
  • Soak cut apples in salt water for five minutes to keep them from browning. Drain and store in an airtight container in the fridge…they’ll stay fresh and crisp for at least a couple of days!
  • Don’t forget to use your freezer! Toss a few of those individually portioned bags of grapes in the freezer for a refreshing snack that will last much longer than in the fridge. Freezing excess produce is a great way to preserve that initial investment until you need it.

Your needs may be slightly different depending on what you buy, how often you buy it, whether or not it is organic, and how picky you are about texture and freshness. The point is to do whatever you can to make sure the food you bring home is getting consumed by you and your family and not pests or the garbage disposer.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst” –William Penn

It’s that time of year again…when life returns to its usual hectic pace after the lazy summer months. Four days into the new school year, I’ve finally finished celebrating. Now it’s time to put away my martini glass and batten down the hatches, because we’re about to get hit with a hurricane of homework, extracurricular activities and PTA events.

I’m a person who loves routines–no, needs routines–in order to function well. I  find that it helps to be able to go on autopilot for everyday tasks so that I can save my brain power for when I really need it, like understanding what those international laundry symbols mean. (By the way, if you have the same problem, here’s a key that you can print out and tape above your washing machine for future reference.) Routines are a great way to make sure you are squeezing in all of your repetitive, must-do tasks that, if forgotten, could be problematic…like going grocery shopping, doing the laundry, and brushing your teeth. But what happens when you have a one-time or less essential task or activity, like fixing the broken closet door or making time for friends, or getting a physical? Where do they fit in when your day is already packed to the gills with work, housework, homework, grocery shopping, chauffeuring the kids and laundry? Chances are, they get deferred until you have some “free” time. And when is that? When your kids leave home  or you retire? (I’ve been told by those in the know that that golden goose is a myth, too.) Or worse, they happen when the fact that you have deferred them for so long leads to some crisis that makes them suddenly essential, like discovering you are really sick.

Time is like money and available calories: limited and once gone, you can’t change your mind about how to spend it. Anyone on a food or financial diet will tell you that advance planning is the only way to avoid wasteful spending, yet few of us put that much advance thought into how we will budget our time in order to fit everything in.

Start with plugging the leaks and becoming more efficient:

  1. Multi-task by returning phone calls while you are doing something mindless, like laundry or cleaning (invest in a bluetooth if you need to).
  2. Turn wait time into productive time by storing your reading in a tote you can take with you to appointments or other places you are likely to be kept waiting.
  3. Carry paper and pen with you so that you are always prepared to write a letter, make a To Do list, or create a shopping list or menu plan during unexpected wait times.
  4. Keep a “Stuff we need” list in your wallet or phone for those times when you have a few minutes to kill and are near a store.
  5. Delegate tasks to your spouse or kids or hire some help for chores like cleaning, tutoring your kids, or yard work. It may be the best money you ever spent.
  6. Organize your home so that you spend less time looking for things, shopping for things you already have, or putting things away. This also makes delegation easier if everyone in your home knows where to find things and/or put them away.

Next, prioritize according to your core values and current needs. Which comes first, health or friends? Financial security or time with the kids? There’s no right or wrong answer, and the answer isn’t always going to be the same for every situation. Sticking to your new diet and exercise program during your lunch hour may be more important right now than having lunch with your co-worker friend, but it may not be as important as lunch with the friend who is moving halfway around the world or was just diagnosed with cancer.  And it may not be as important once you feel more confident that you will get back on track the next day. Perhaps your kids are your priority, but  the financial security you need to provide them with a key opportunity means you have to work overtime for awhile, even if it takes you away from them for now. My point is to make conscious, well-thought-out choices about your time after weighing everything. Don’t just let life happen to you by default. Grab the wheel and decide what direction you want to go in. It is okay to say no to something!

Finally, stop feeling guilty about spending time on you. (I’m Catholic, so guilt comes really easy to me and I struggle with this one.) You are the most important person in your life. Without you, none of it matters, so you should be a top priority. If you need to exercise or meditate or shop or nap in order to feel refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of your seemingly endless To Do list, then do it! Nothing kills motivation like resentment, and that is what you will end up with if you don’t take time out to tend to your own needs from time to time. Put it on the calendar, just as you would a doctor’s appointment or parent-teacher conference, because it is just as important.

As my mother-in-law likes to say, “You’re a long time dead”, so make every minute count while you can!

EasyPeasy QuickTip #4: Carpe Occasionem! (Seize the Opportunity!)

Seize the Moment

If you are anything like me, you have a gazillion little household tasks that are too-often neglected. Things that would take about five minutes or less to complete, but just aren’t high enough on the priority list to be remembered until your disgust or frustration with the results of having neglected them for so long forces you to take action. Often, you are in the throes of some other project when this occurs, so the trick is to make note of them as you think of them and use the little pockets of available time you have (the ones you don’t consciously acknowledge and probably deny that you have) throughout your week to accomplish them. Keep the list where you can easily add to it the next time you notice something that needs doing.

Before you say it, yes you do too have pockets of available time, especially if you have a spouse or kids who are never ready when it’s time to go somewhere.

Here are a few items on my list to help get you thinking:

  • Change a lightbulb
  • Clean out the silverware tray (Where do all those crumbs come from anyway?)
  • Wipe fingerprints off the doors, kitchen cabinets or banisters
  • Hang a picture or a hook
  • De-clutter the junk drawer
  • Replace the stock photo that came in that picture frame with someone you actually know
  • Re-fill the soap dispenser, toilet paper holder, salt and pepper shakers, sugar bowl, or ….
  • Empty/clean the crumb tray in the toaster
  • Clean the coffeemaker
  • Wipe the grime off the top of the refrigerator
  • Clean the mirrors or TV screen (Make sure you use the appropriate cleaner on your TV screen)

You can also keep a separate list in your phone or your purse for things that you can do while waiting for an appointment, such as making a grocery list or menu plan, writing a thank you note, or reading that thing you set aside to read later. And speaking of reading, store all those “I’ll read it later” papers that come into your home in a tote bag that you can grab on your way out the door so that you can make the most of your wait time away from home.

Aliquid magnum ex parva! (Click here for translation)

Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

A couple of months ago, I spent a much-overdue long weekend away with my three older sisters. It was the first time I had ever been away from my children for more than one night. (They are now 7 and 9.) I was sure that they would miss me, and I knew I would miss them, but my son responded to the news with this elated proclamation to his father:

“Hey Daddy, that means that we can do whatever we want all weekend, because Mommy won’t be here to boss us around!”

Alas, it’s true that we all need to take a break every now and then from doing what we’re supposed to do. That’s why we take vacations and why we skip the gym, take a “mental health day” from work, or cheat on our diets. In this case, my son thought that there would be no one ordering him to clean up his toys, make his bed or clear his dishes with his drill sergeant Mom on leave. His hope was that it would be one long video game-playing, TV-watching, Lego-dumping weekend filled with Cocoa Puffs for dinner, chocolate cake for dessert and no church or teeth-brushing to cramp his style. Turns out he was only half-right. He forgot that his sister was also staying home…and she’s bossier than all the rest of the women in my family put together. Here’s some proof:

bossy sister, great white shark

Are those blue things fish or a bossy sister’s feet?

Anyway, a little time off from the regular routine is a healthy thing, and summer is the ideal time for relaxing our standards and enjoying some easy, laid-back simplicity. But there is a fine line between a relaxed routine and complete chaos…a line that is easily erased in the absence of a solid organizational foundation and a bit of self-discipline. Just like enjoying that all-you-can-eat dessert buffet, the long-term negative effects of your binge can be minimized with just a smidgeon of advance preparation and a plan in place for easing back into the rigors of everyday life when reality resumes in the fall. Also remember that kids need a little structure in place to reassure them when they crash from that sugar rush.

So  go ahead and savor the sweetness of these long summer days, but just remember that you still need to brush if you don’t want a cavity!

(And now that you’ve got the song stuck in your head, you may as well go ahead and listen to it! Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer )

EasyPeasy QuickTip #1: Time-Free Refills

One has only to look at the empty soap dispensers and bare toilet paper holders in my house to see that we are a family of consumers. Seems like every time I turn around, something needs to be refilled…wipes, pull-ups, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, soap, zip-loc bags, cereal…the list goes on and on. So I’m delegating this chore to the kids and making them earn that allowance. I made a list of all the things that routinely need refilling and divided it between the two of them. I hung a copy of each list on the fridge and it is now their job to check the status of each item throughout the house at least twice a week and refill as required. When they deplete the stocks, they write what’s needed on the laminated “Stuff We Need” list that permanently hangs on the fridge. (There’s still plenty of room for them to write below where my daughter added “doorbell” as the top priority grocery item months ago).  I’m hoping this will have the added benefit of making them less wasteful in their consumption, but I’m not holding my breath.

What’s For Dinner, Mom?

Reservations? But seriously, how many us can answer this question without any hesitation and how many don’t require a phone or car keys to implement the solution?

One of the biggest challenges facing today’s busy parents is feeding a hungry growing family healthy meals on the go. It’s so much easier to order take-out, make a quick run through the drive-thru, or –SHRIEK!– nuke some flavorless frozen cardboard. With all the sports practices and dance classes we find ourselves racing to each week, one would expect today’s youth to be a generation of muscular, cardio-vascular machines. Yet childhood obesity is on the rise. One look at the fast food and junk food wrappers strewn across the backseats of many a minivan is all it takes to unravel that mystery. But what’s a busy working mom (or dad) to do?

Every good parent knows how important it is to give their child a loving home, a good education, and a variety of opportunities for building confidence and self-esteem, but many fail to recognize that good nutrition is an important building block for all of the above. Without a healthy diet, kids can’t perform their best physically or academically. Self-esteem and confidence begin to suffer and that loving home turns stressful and tense. But your healthy family dinner doesn’t have to get gobbled up by your busy family schedule. You can have your (rice)cake and eat it too. All it takes is a little advance planning and some determination.

The key ingredient is a weekly menu plan chock full of quick and easy recipe ideas. Now when I say “recipe”, I don’t necessarily mean a written recipe. The quickest meals to prepare  are the ones you can do without reading. But not everyone is blessed with the Julia Child gene, so if creative cooking isn’t your thing, find a good resource you like for healthy but fast recipes and keep it close by. (Some of my favorites are Ellie Krieger’s So Easy and The Food You Crave, The Sonoma Diet Cookbook by Connie Guttersen, and the Eating Well app for iPhone.)

Next, you’ll need your calendar and a shopping list. The calendar is key because you need to know what’s on the agenda for each night of the week in order to plan meals that will fit into your schedule.

Armed with recipes, calendar and shopping list, sit down and plan your menu for the week. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Incorporate some variety. (I like to plan a variety of poultry, beef, lean pork, fish, and  vegetarian meals each week)
  • Give yourself a break. Plan at least one super-simple meal each week for the busiest night. For example, you can serve soup and sandwiches or pick up a rotisserie chicken at the super-market and pair with a salad and some multi -grain bread. Another favorite in my house is homemade veggie pizza using a store-bought pizza crust and fresh veggies. No one said you have to make everything from scratch.
  • Make more than you need and freeze the leftovers or use them in a meal later in the week.
  • Prep in advance. Chop all the vegetables you need for dinner the night before or in the morning or buy pre-chopped versions. Make use of your crock-pot so you can switch on and go before work.
  • Get the kids to help. If they are old enough, make them your sous chefs. As they say,”Many hands make light work.” An added bonus is the quality time you’ll be spending together. Play your cards right and you just might be able to put them in charge of making dinner one night a week!
  • Snack early, dine later. Stock the fridge with healthy snacks for before practice and use the time during practice to cook dinner for afterwards.
  • Make your shopping list as you plan so that you are sure to have everything you need on hand. If using recipes, make note of the cookbook and page number right on your menu plan so there’s no fumbling around for the recipe later.
  • Remember to include side dishes in your menu plan so that you aren’t scrambling to figure out what vegetable to serve with it on the day of. (Fresh fruit also makes a great no-fuss side dish.)
  • Post your menu on the fridge. Not only will it remind you of your game plan when you’re making breakfast, but chances are, you won’t have to hear “What’s for dinner, Mom?” because they will already know.

Confessions of a Neat Freak

My name is Valerie and I’m a neat freak. Or so I was told by my six-year-old last week. It is pretty hard to deny.

You’ve met people like me before. I’m the one who sends emails around the office reminding people to clean their coffee cups and then signs them with some passive-aggressive moniker like “the Dish Fairy” (a nickname that quickly morphed into “the Kitchen Witch” in one office I worked in). I’m that co-worker everyone jokingly accuses of doing no work because there are no papers left on her desk at the end of the day. The owner of a company I used to work for once asked if he could borrow my office for a meeting because it was so much neater than his. When I offered to help him clean up his, he just got a frightened look on his face and walked (ran) away.

At home I’m even worse, although contrary to popular belief, my spices are not alphabetized, nor is my closet color-coded. But I guess the mere fact that I often get asked if they are is an indication that my propensity towards order is a little excessive.

Believe it or not, I was once a typical kid who shoved stuff under the bed and got nagged at for leaving dirty dishes in the sink. My mother always loved to tell the story of the night she came home after dark and could see me through my ground-level bedroom window, head under the bed and rump up in the air, digging through the huge pile of stuff under my bed like a dog searching for a bone. I’m not quite sure when the mutation started, but I have often longed for that sloppy teen to come back and teach me how to happily co-exist with mess and clutter.

I have tried…truly I have. I once forced myself to leave several baskets of clean laundry in the hallway for a whole week while I took the kids on excursions to the zoo and picnics in the park, all in an effort to forget about housework in favor of spending more time with the ones I love. My best friend suggested snubbing the clean laundry as a good first test as she coached me in letting go of chores in favor of fun. She’s one of those fun and easygoing moms who likes to pile her family’s clean laundry at the foot of her bed. By the end of the week, after sleeping on top of it and tossing it out of the way when required, each piece has magically disappeared as the owner has claimed it and worn it again. Why waste time putting it away, she mused? It will be gone eventually and you’ll always have more anyway. I have to admit that she does have a point, but by the end of my week of laundry rebellion I found myself tossing it all back into the dryer in a vain attempt to quickly eliminate the wrinkles that had infested the entire basket from everyone  rummaging to find what they needed. Bottom line: As we learned at the zoo, a leopard can’t change it’s spots.

Now don’t get me wrong…I can and do make one helluva mess in the midst of some of my more creative moments or in the hub-bub of my busy life as a mother of two and loving wife of a man who couldn’t find the dirty clothes hamper if it was covered in $100 bills. It’s just that I can’t stand to live in it for very long. To me, clutter is the visual equivalent of too much background noise and prevents me from being able to concentrate on anything else. Order calms me. Order makes me happy. Order is the vodka in the Bloody Mary of my life.

Now I know what you are thinking. Valerie, you say…life is too short to spend all of it tidying up and doing chores. You need to stop and smell the roses and enjoy the people around you more. I agree! And believing it was possible to indulge my inner neat freak and be a fun and easygoing mom like my best friend, I began a quest for an orderly existence that still leaves time for the ones I love.

Through this blog I hope to share some of the precious gems I have picked up along the way on how to simplify life so that yours might be a little richer too. After all, life is meant to be enjoyed and an orderly home should be a means to that end, not the beginning and the end of your existence. An organized, relaxed lifestyle is not an oxymoron, and it can be easy peasy with just a bit of planning and the right attitude.

Check back often and you just might find some easy peasy solutions to your everyday challenges.