When Meal Planning Saves You

This post was originally written a year ago, back when I was super optimistic about how long it would take to launch this blog. The post just seemed like it was meant for spring, so I held onto it until now---once again, the week before Easter. Nearly a full year later, the meals in this book still never fail to perk up my meal planning and remind me why we prioritize gathering around the table. 

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I hate meal planning.

Oh, I love the idea of plotting each meal nicely in it's calendar square, guiding me away from last-minute takeout and the frustration of an empty pantry. I even love it in practice: meal planning undoubtedly saves us hundreds of dollars on groceries each year, not to mention the untold frustrations of dragging two small children to Target for that block of cheese I forgot (again).

What I hate is the activity of meal planning.

There is never an hour (or even ten minutes) in which I think, "I'd like to devote this portion of my life to figuring out what my family will eat for the next seven days." Never is there a convenient time for digging through the pantry, rearranging pasta boxes and canned goods to see if we're running low on olive oil. 

And after all that, having the prophetic-like vision to combine the existing pantry goods with not-yet-purchased ingredients and make them into nourishing, well-rounded meals? Meals that fit effortlessly with the weather, our social plans, and whatever other events make their way onto our calendar? Forget about it.

Meal planning is a chore on par with scrubbing the bathroom.

Until one Sunday night, it wasn't. 

We had all been crabby and tired this particular Sunday. The toddler had meltdowns all day long. The baby kept bursting into screaming fits for no apparent reason. I accidentally fell asleep on the floor for five minutes when I took a break from folding laundry.

It was a long day, one in which we all clearly needed to hit the reset button.

The last thing I wanted to do was meal plan, but I knew I had to. It was the week before Easter. Not only did I have to round up a week's worth of dinners (including one vegetarian for Good Friday), I had to make sure I had all the ingredients on hand for the dishes we would bring to our family's Easter celebration.

Meal planning usually leads me to Pinterest, but the holiday had me reaching for printed recipes. I dug to the back of the cupboard, past the cutting board and splatter screens and muffin tins, for the cheese slicer. This is where we keep the paperclipped scraps of copy paper and post-its with my grandma's scrawling handwriting detailing the makings of our traditional family Easter Pizza. (This is the only recipe for which we use the cheese slicer, so leaving the recipe there makes sense in my head.) 

I grabbed my latest Taste of Home magazine from the basket on the fireplace hearth, hopeful that it would tell me how to make green bean casserole. Next came the mother of all cookbooks: Better Homes and Gardens. Its red-checkered cover has graced my kitchen since the day I got married, when my other grandma presented it as a wedding gift. 

And then on a whim, I picked up Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta and added it to the top of my pile. With my whiteboard calendar on my right and my stack of recipes on my left, I prepared to tackle the drudgery of meal planning.

But the drudgery never came. 

As I read through my grandma's handwritten recipe notes, I realized that I was sitting in complete silence for the first time in days. It was a moment that begged to be noticed, so of course, I read a poem.

I knew I would love Eat This Poem because I love the idea of marrying poetry with food. The book is a blend of life's best things: well-loved recipes and mini essays and curated poems to pair with them. (And if that appeals to you, check out the blog of the same name. It's a delight.)

Author Nicole Gulotta is a kindred spirit when it comes to poetry and writing and appreciation of good food. But I don't always share her idea of what good food looks like. She eats a largely vegetarian diet, and ours is decidedly meat based. She loves a good balsamic vinaigrette on a salad; I love Hidden Valley Ranch.

Still, we agree on the important parts: The best food is whole food, made from scratch, shared with those you love. Family recipes are sacred. Eating seasonally makes your food taste better.

I flipped through the book, devouring poetry and short essays along with recipes (many of which I know I'll never make). Soon an hour had passed , yet nary a meal had been planned. And then, Italian Beef Stew. 

This was the recipe I'd been waiting to find, the one that would fill us up on a chilly, rainy Monday. 

I added the ingredients to my list. I pulled meat to thaw from the basement freezer. I added a flag to the book.

This was meal planning as it was meant to be, savored as slowly as the meal itself. I had found connection through the line-by-line instructions of a family recipe, paired with carefully chosen poems.

Perhaps this meal planning was a failure. After all, I spent nearly two hours planning one meal. But I think it was a gift and a blessing, one I will be sure to seek out again. 

Castles in the Air: Online Life vs. the Real World {Chasing Creative}

I feel like I live in two worlds sometimes, managing the parallel lives of two people whose realities are totally different. 

In one world, I'm subject to the whims of two tiny people with a never-ending string of needs. I sweep the floor three times a day and still have crumbs stuck to my socks, I don't go more than 15 minutes without answering the question "Why?" and I always seem to be feeding someone else and eating my own meals cold. 

In the other, I'm prepared and put together. I post well-crafted sentences and hold conversations with other adults, conversations I actually manage to contribute to in an intelligent way. I have a profile picture that always looks happy and has clean hair, even when the real-life me doesn't. This is a world of filters that act as rose-colored glasses. 

Take a guess which one is more tempting to spend time in. 

We're all drawn in by the lure of the online world with its promises of connections real people through social media, and building real influence by pouring into an audience, building a platform like a stage with steps as high as you can. 


Sometimes I picture it like the Castle in the Air from The Phantom Tollbooth. Milo, the boy hero of the story, has spent the whole book working to reach the Castle in the Air to rescue two sisters, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason.

Just before reaching his destination, Milo is distracted by a whole host of monsters: a faceless gentleman who assigns Milo an endless string of pointless tasks that will take hundreds of years to complete, the Demon of Insincerity who proclaims himself to be much more than he is, the Gelatinous Giant who tells Milo that being different isn't safe. 

The monsters chase Milo to the stairs of the castle, where a Senses Taker again distracts Milo from his real goal by asking a series of increasingly trivial questions. Just steps away from the Castle in the Air, and Milo has forgotten all about the princesses and the demons. Only an explosion of unexpected laughter make him snap out of it.


The Phantom Tollbooth is an allegorical children's novel published in 1961. It's nearly 60 years old, but I don't think it's ever been more relevant than it is now. 

The real world, the one that's messy and filled with hard work, is so much less appealing than the promises of the online world. But the real world is where we live, with our children and spouses and friends and family. The real world is where the magic of creativity happens. It's where we're called to be: here. 

Portions of the online world are real, like the genuine friendships we can form and the words we can share that might otherwise stay hidden away in a notebook on our nightstand. But most of it? It's all smoke and mirrors, distractions and insincerity. 


But allegories can never reflect real life perfectly. Social media and platforms have their place, especially for creatives who want their work to mean something and impact others. 

So how do we balance it all without getting pulled away from our real goals? That's the question Abbie and I are tackling in this week's episode of Chasing Creative. Head here to give it a listen: Social Media and the Creative Life. 

We don't have all the answers (or any answers, really), but we do have the hope that Princesses Rhyme and Reason gave Milo: it's okay that the journey takes a little longer than it might have as long as we learn from our mistakes and carry the lessons with us always.

How do you balance creating and living in the real world with the expectation to build a platform online?

Life Lived in a Moleskine Notebook

"So it's a diary?"

My black Moleskine notebook is open on the kitchen table in front of me while my husband peers curiously down at it. The notebook follows me everywhere, though I rarely have time to open it. It sits on the corner of my desk while I write client articles, on the kitchen counter while I chop onions, on the nightstand next to my bed just in case I happen to wake up before the kids.

The notebook is everywhere. I'm more attached to it than my phone. It's the thing I'd grab first in a fire (assuming the kids were already safe). But I don't actually know what it is.

"Um, not really. It's just where I write down things that happen and what I think about them. But not like, everything that happens. Just important things that might matter someday. Things I might want to remember?"

I'm stumbling over my words, not making sense even to myself. I add something about creative nonfiction as a genre and how it holds the start to many of the essays I eventually publish online, but I can tell that only muddies the waters more. My husband shakes his head and gives me a small eye roll, figuring it's one of the many things that he, a non-reader, will never get about me, a person who lives and breathes words all day.

I press the tip of my pen back down on the paper, but whatever I was going to write is already lost. I stare at the black dot the pen left in the middle of the paper, letting my eyes unfocus, trying to chase back whatever fleeting idea has been flitting through my brain. 


I was ten when I first stumbled upon the Pensieve with Harry Potter. Dumbledore says something about how your mind becomes so full of thoughts, you just need somewhere to put them all. Later, you can find patterns you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. 

Harry nods along even though he doesn't get it. At ten, this is how I felt too. A bowl full of thoughts didn't make any sense to me. How could your mind not have space to think about the things that needed thinking about? My head was balancing all sorts of things that year, like whether or not I would like summer camp (I didn't), which teacher I'd get next year (a good one), and how awkward my first experience with health class would be (very).

Then Harry and I both grew up, and now a basin filled with swirling silver thoughts makes a lot more sense. 

In the six years since entering "real" adulthood, complete with marriage, home ownership, and children, I've often wished for a magical basin that could hang onto thoughts and memories until I had time and space to process them all. But J. K. Rowling's Pottermore site tells us that it's even more than that. 

She tells us that it's difficult to use a Pensieve to sort through ideas; it's not something every wizard can do. It requires work and skill, and if you're too protective of your secrets or ashamed of your past, you'll never manage it. 


My notebook is a Muggle's Pensieve, the closest I can get to using magic to sort the thoughts that need sorting. It gives the gift of mental processing and the ability to find threads of stories in an otherwise mundane daily life, though these findings don't come easily. 

I have to be willing to write down things I wish I hadn't said or done. I have to know that I could get hit by a bus someday and people could end up flipping through those pages full of unpolished words that weren't meant to be read. I have to know that all the things I write there might not add up to anything real in the end, but they were probably worth writing anyway.

And so the notebook that holds all these words I can't quite define stays with me. I carry it from room to room in our house, jotting down a quick thought in between refilling sippy cups and breaking up fights over toys.

Someday, if I'm lucky, maybe I'll find enough magic to sort through the thoughts and find the pattern that was there all along.

 

 

Planning an Ideal Creative Retreat {Chasing Creative}

Before we had kids, my husband and I would go up to his family's cabin in February or March for an ice fishing weekend. 

This meant using an outhouse and boiling snow for cooking water, huddling in a blanket and fuzzy socks next to the space heater, and carrying our things through what was often more than a foot of snow up an unplowed, hilly driveway.

It was glorious. Because ice fishing weekend meant my husband would ice fish while I sat in the cabin in blessed, glorious, non-wifi-connected silence. 

I typically got a lot of writing done, not to mention plenty of reading. Though I never called it this at the time, I realized that those weekends were my version of a creative retreat.

 

Spending a full weekend on creative work feels nearly impossible nowadays, and I know I'm not alone in that. We've got little kids or full-time jobs or financial limitations or all of the above. It's hard to justify time spent on purely creative things when you've got a million other responsibilities on your plate. But I still think taking a creative retreat is important.

No one else is ever going to prioritize your creativity for you.

A creative retreat is not only your chance to spend time recharging and doing something you enjoy, it's also your chance to tell the world, "Hey, this is important to me. This thing I do just because I love it is worth it, and I'm going to start treating it that way."

Creative retreats don't have to be some big mountaintop experience (though wouldn't we all love if they were?). A creative retreat could be

  • spending two days in a row at the library with your notebook and a pen
  • an afternoon at your favorite park with a sketchbook
  • a calligraphy workshop you've always wanted to take
  • letting your spouse get up with the kids so you can spend the morning in bed teasing out an essay idea or doodling in your journal

Creative retreats are accessible to you if you keep an open mind about what that looks like. Listen in to this week's Chasing Creative episode for ideas on planning a practical creative retreat that fits your lifestyle. You also won't want to miss our season one episode when we interviewed Jennie Moraitis on taking a mini creative retreat.

What would your ideal creative retreat look like?

 

Creative Communities {Chasing Creative}

Most creatives wander around their real lives feeling like no one really gets them. Oftentimes this suits us (at least those of us who are introverted). Then we come online and find that camaraderie is just on the other side of the screen, where we can join the vast circle of other creatives who understand and support our work.

Having people who can mentor and encourage us is essential to our creative lives. But how do we find these people? Is it healthy to live this double life where many of the people who know us best live on the other side of a screen? What sorts of creative groups and mentorships are best, and is there ever a point where they do more harm than good? And of course, the question every introvert dreads: How can I find a creative community in real life?

Abbie and I are hashing through all these questions, plus sharing our own experiences with creative communities, in this week's episode of the Chasing Creative podcast. Head here to listen, or download it wherever you find your podcasts!

Lessons from the Bread

There is a spectacular science to baking bread. The basic formula is simple: flour + water + yeast + sugar = bread. It's the basis for everything from crusty ciabatta to soft sandwich bread, dimpled focaccia filled with herbs and butter to quick-rising hamburger buns. Somehow, miraculously, those four ingredients produce breads so different, you'd never know they were all cousins at heart.

In four years of baking our weekly sandwich loaf, and just about every other type of carb-y dough known to man, I've never bothered to acquaint myself with the mystery of the process. I'd find a recipe and follow it. I wouldn't tweak. I wouldn't wonder about how these ingredients came together to make that result.

  Photo by  Nikki Tran

Photo by Nikki Tran

I used to try harder, in the early days. Jacob and I had freshly returned from a trip to Europe, and our tastebuds were less than thrilled at coming home to American fare after being delighted by Italian olive oil and Austrian dumplings for three weeks. Bread and cheese seemed particularly lacking, like eating a cardboard-flavored sponge or chewing a slice of rubber that was a closer relative to plastic than to anything produced by a cow.

Making my own cheese seemed a bit out of reach for someone who had only recently stopped serving Hamburger Helper for every other meal, so I settled on bread. 

One week later, I was watching the UPS deliveryman drag 40 pounds of wheat berries up the steep cement stairs that curve toward our house (a trip he's made every few months since then). I tied a blue flowered apron around my neck, my newly pregnant belly not even making a bump in the fabric, and I poured a measuring cup filled with light brown, oblong wheat berries into the top of my new electric flour mill. 

The recipe I consulted was written for white flour, and I succeeded in making a dense brick that refused to rise. I baked it still sitting a quarter inch below the top of the loaf pan and ate every crumbly, bitter slice myself as peanut butter toast. I was proud of every crumb. 

I spent the next six months experimenting. I found a recipe made for wheat flour, and I hunted down additives like vital wheat gluten and citric acid (difficult to find because, the Whole Foods store clerk said, Dr. Oz had just advised women to put it on their face). I kneaded my dough by hand rather than in the mixer because I liked the feel of it, even though it made my hands ache. I jotted notes on scraps of paper until the recipe I had copied from Pinterest was so crinkled and scratched out, it was impossible for anyone but me to read. 

The bread got better but never great. And then I had the baby. 

Hadley cried anytime I set her down for the first four months of her life. She hated her baby swing, her car seat, her stroller, her bouncer, and at times, even the baby wrap I tucked her into. 

Baking bread turned into the worst chore of the week. With my newborn's screams in the background of every loaf I made, I started taking shortcuts. I tossed yeast into water without waiting for it to sponge, and I cut the kneading time in half (how much could it really matter, anyway?). I skipped the shaping and instead plopped the lump of dough unceremoniously into the loaf pan, then stuck the whole thing into a 170-degree oven in the hopes the warmth would make it rise faster. 

I wanted better payoff with less work. I lost sight of the process, and I didn't get it back for years. 

The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

The Italians don't have better bread than we do because they rush through a set of instructions. They take their time. They find the best ingredients. They press their hands into the dough and respond to what it needs.

This is what I'm remembering this winter, largely with the help of The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. It was in this book I learned that my shortcuts were literally killing my bread. The very things that keep yeast happy and growing can also kill it dead in one fell swoop. 

Yeast needs warm water to activate, but not too hot. Yeast needs sugar to eat, but don't let it touch honey directly. The same goes for salt, which adds to the bread's flavor but has the potential do harm if you're not careful. And don't let the dough rise somewhere too hot! Warmth is good, but nothing more than what the glow of the oven light provides.

I read all this and immediately started applying it to myself instead of the bread, like the good English major I am. 

I am the yeast. I've been trying to give myself the ingredients necessary for an intentional life, but I take shortcuts in the process. I do more harm than good. My ambition is killing my creativity, not feeding it. Social media is causing me to burn out, not to rise in the warmth. I need more time to rise, more opportunities to be carefully shaped into what I'm meant to be.

In just six weeks of owning this book, I've gone from flinging together a haphazard dough in ten minutes to committing to a bread-baking process that begins at 10:00 a.m. and wraps up around 8:00 p.m. It includes making a sponge to get things started, kneading the dough in the KitchenAid for seven minutes at least, and giving the yeast time to work through three full rises plus a rest period. 

It's more work than it's ever been before, and yet, it no longer feels like a chore. Checking the dough is a restful reminder to be present to what's happening in my own home. Moving it from step to step is practical art in the middle of a long day. 

And, of course, the bread tastes better now than it ever has before.

Here's to hoping the lesson holds true for the rest of life as well.

When Your Friend Writes a Book {Chasing Creative}

I don't remember the details of how I started following Callie Feyen's writing. It probably had something do with Twitter circa 2013. I do remember how we went from being occasional commenters on each other's blogs to that weird space of internet friendship: Abbie and I interviewed her in the early days of the Chasing Creative podcast. 

She spoke about writing and motherhood with more raw honesty than I'd ever heard before. She refreshingly didn't have much to say about building a platform or getting mired in the work of maintaining your personal brand. Callie was, and still is, all about the work: showing up and writing whether you feel like it or not. 

In that first interview, Callie shared a quote I will never apologize for recycling through my Twitter every few weeks:

It’s my story. Nobody is going to write it except for me.
— Callie Feyen

We had Callie on the show again in 2016. Her life had changed quite a bit since we spoke the first time, and she was going through a rough season of transition with a cross-country move and a major job transition. She didn't know where she was going yet, but she was still writing. 

So Callie took all that drive and energy, and she kept doing the hard work during hard times, and she came out on the other side with a published book.

We celebrated by having her on Chasing Creative for a third time to talk about how someone who was a little unsure, someone who has two kids and a job and not that much time to write, followed the threads of her own life and turned them into a book. 

This episode is for the ones who can't seem to find time to do the work, who aren't sure if they'll ever accomplish that big creative dream, or who are just plain worn down by the season they're in right now. (I'm raising my own hand here.) Callie will speak right to you and give you the hope and encouragement you need to keep pushing through. Listen wherever you find your podcasts or by clicking here.

The Teacher Diaries Callie Feyen

 

The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet is a series of essays on teen love and teaching Shakespeare to a group of adolescents. It debuted on Valentine's Day 2018 from T.S. Poetry Press. Grab a copy here (affiliate link).

Why I'm Giving Up Podcasts for Lent

I understand the spiritual practice of giving something up for Lent, but it's not something I've actively participated in as an adult. Either I never choose something soon enough, or I give up halfway through because my choice wasn't meaningful enough to me . . . the usual reasons I give up on setting goals or forming habits. 

(Or maybe it all points back to the arbitrariness of being encouraged to give up chocolate or pizza as a Catholic schoolchild . . . neither of which held much spiritual significance for me, but both of which made me resentful as a kid whose March birthday always falls during Lent.)

This year, though, I've been feeling unsettled. In this uncomfortable season of waiting and not knowing what's next, what I'm giving up for Lent seems to have fallen into my lap. 

And so, I'm giving up podcasts until Easter. 

The giving up

It probably seems like an odd choice, nearly as meaningless as candy. But here is what's been happening to me in increasing frequency over the past few months:

I wake up in the morning, and I scroll through my podcast playlist to see what's new. I distract myself from the chaos of getting the kids breakfast by choose one and hitting play. Hadley talks to me and I only half hear her. I tell myself it's just this once, just today, but of course it isn't. 

I get in the car and I turn on a podcast. I feel bored and I turn on a podcast. I fold laundry and I turn on a podcast. I tell the kids I'll build towers or color with them, but my mind isn't there; it's with a podcast. Reagan cries or Hadley asks a question, and I'm annoyed and impatient because they're pulling my focus away from the episode of the moment. 

In general, I think podcasts are a good thing. (Of course I do, or I wouldn't record my own.) I've culled my playlist down to include only the very best. The podcasts I listen to are filled with wisdom about creativity and writing, marriage and parenting, and Christian approaches to everything from money to business. 

The problem isn't with podcasts. The problem is with me.

In this rather stressful season, I've started relying on them in the hopes that they'll show me how to fix my life (at best) or escape from it (at worst). I've filled every moment of my day with chatter, voices that are wise but that have left no room for me to sit with my own thoughts or to notice any guiding signposts from God.

The taking up

Giving something up is the more well-known half of the Lenten practice, but the other option is to take something up (something I don't think I've attempted even once). This year, alongside giving up podcasts, I'm adding a new spiritual practice to my days:

Resting in solitude.

The idea comes from a book I read recently, The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher L. Heuertz (affiliate link). The gist of it is this: Christians need contemplative prayer in our lives as a way to draw closer to God and to become better versions of ourselves. The practice of contemplative prayer has been largely lost (though I think it still has a good foundation in Catholicism), and we need it more than ever in this age of never-ending distraction.  

I'm removing the distraction of podcasts, and I'm taking up the contemplative prayer posture Heuertz recommends for my Enneagram type, 4 (rest in solitude). 

I'm a bit skeptical about this, to be honest. How much solitude can I be reasonably expected to find as the mother of a three- and one-and-a-half-year-old? But something about it feels right, like it's a missing puzzle piece that will help me hit "reset" on so many things that have gotten out of line. 

I don't expect a huge spiritual transformation, but I'll take even the smallest baby step in the right direction. 

What are you giving up / taking up for Lent this year? 

Overcoming Things that Drag You Down

Vacuuming. Dusting. Washing dishes. Thinking of food to feed the people in your house for three meals a day . . . then actually shopping for it, cooking it, and cleaning it up. 

Just reading this makes me want to sit down and watch something mindless on Netflix while ignoring the filth in my house. But ignoring the things we don't like doing isn't a good option. It's the adult equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing la-las to yourself while the things that have gone undone only continue to pile up higher.

These things that drag us down in life are almost always necessary responsibilities that need to be dealt with, but they're also the things that steal our time and energy away from our creativity. Luckily, Abbie and I are masters at finding solutions (or creative ways of just NOT adulting) so we can get back to the things we actually want to spend time on.

Join us in this week's Chasing Creative episode to find out which tasks we hate dealing with most and how we overcome them. 

What are your most hated responsibilities as an adult? How do you deal with getting them done?