What Happens If We Aren’t Busy?

Being busy is a status symbol these days. Ask someone how they are doing or what they’ve been up to, and chances are you might hear the word “busy” in their response. If busyness is the currency of the 21st Century, we all want to be Bill Gates (or P. Diddy).

Now I will be the first to admit that I’ve fallen prey to the busyness phenomenon.

To work on that, I decided I would not use the word “busy” in my responses to people when they asked how I was doing or what I was up to. “Busy” was now verboten. This made me start to get more creative in my responses:

Person: How are you doing?
Me: Oh man, I am so b-uh.. (*cough*)
Person: Bubbly?
Me: Huh? Oh, yes. Bubbly! You know, like uh…happy.
Person: (Gives me side eye) Ohhhkaaay…
Me: Because… I am just so happy, that it’s like I’m overflowing with it. Like champagne … with bubbles? And … I just love champagne! How about you? (Phew! Good recovery. Everyone loves champagne).
Person: Oh, I love champagne, but I’m just so busy. I never have time to sit down and drink it anymore.
Me: (Uggghhh!) Oh no. That sounds tough.
Person: It is. And my to do list is so long!
Me: (*forehead slap*)

What was interesting about this exercise is that it made me realize that there were many other things going on in my life aside from just being busy. And in addition to stretching my vocabulary, it made me question how busy I really was. Was I actually busy or was I just feeling the pressure to be busy?

Since I have put the word “busy” in time out, I have noticed that I have made room for other things, not just synonyms for busy other words.

For example, just this past week, I was busy working on getting a few things done while two of my three kids napped. Just when I felt like I was getting into productive mode, my oldest came up and asked me if we could ride bikes. I hemmed and hawed initially – we can’t all go bike riding with a baby, the other kids are napping, I need to cook dinner – and then she asked “Please? Just for 10 minutes?” I stopped and thought about it (Do I have 10 minutes to go bike riding? Will it take 10 minutes?). I looked down at her and saw how completely excited she was to go bike riding for 10 minutes (insert big puppy eyes) and also how ridiculous it would be if I didn’t have ten minutes to take my kid out on a bike ride. Of course I have 10 minutes! I told myself. How could I not have 10 minutes? What do I live in a prison camp or something?

So, I asked my hubby if he could take a break from what he was working on to watch the other two kids if they woke up while I took my oldest on a bike ride. I even set the timer for 10 minutes (Type A people, right?). And when it went off, I said, “Hey, do you wanna go around the block again? I bet we could stay out for a couple more minutes.” It was a great decision and a great reminder that maybe we aren’t as busy as we think we are.

I hope you’ll question your own busyness.  Let me know how it goes!

 

 

 

 

 

How We Hacked Black Tie Attire for $20

Recently, we were invited to a wedding and were so excited to attend. And then, 3 days before the wedding, we found out it was “black tie only.”

At this point, we slightly panicked.  It was the night before we were leaving for the beautiful, touristy beach town where the wedding was to be held and neither of us owned black tie attire.

We didn’t own bow ties or long evening gowns for a few simple reasons:

  1. We live in California where it’s cool to be casual. Whatever the formal occasion is, dress at least one degree down to achieve the appropriate level of coolness.  Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie scandal? Classic California mindset.
  2. My being pregnant or nursing for the past 6 years = My clothes fit for about 3 months at any given time. This makes shopping really expensive and confusing.
    Wanting-to-be-Helpful Sales Lady – “What size are you?
    Me – “Uhhh …. a 6 err 8? Wait, maybe a large? Or a size 4?
  3. Black tie events are usually not kid or parent friendly because they are past our bedtimes (I’m talking about the parents here).

In any case, we needed black tie attire and we needed it now. There was no way we could buy black tie anything at this time of night and neither my husband nor I wanted to sacrifice quality time with the kids at the beach the next few days to go shopping in a pricey, upscale neighborhood.

So here is how we hacked black tie attire for two people for a little over $20.

My husband packed a nice white button up shirt, cuffs, black dress shoes and socks, and a black suit he already owned. He figured since short tuxes were in style, no one would really be checking to see whether his “tux” was actually a tux. Plus, Silicon Valley techies are turning jeans + blazer + nice shoes into the new “suit,” so even if someone did notice he was wearing a black suit instead of a tuxedo, they probably wouldn’t really care or call the Fashion Police for that matter.

I had no idea what to do. So I packed a black camisole and a pair of nice high heels. I figured I could use the camisole if needed under a dress or blazer.

When we got to our destination, we decided to stop by the highest rated thrift store in the nicest part of town. We figured that the more affluent clientele would be donating pricier items and therefore we would be able to find black tie attire in good condition for cheap. We were correct. On our way into Goodwill, we saw a man wearing what could only be described as yacht attire and five finger shoes (like these by Vibram). He was getting out of a new BMV to drop off boxes of donated items. Behind him were a Tesla and a Mercedes. We were in the right place.

We went inside and while our kids were touching almost everything conceivable and asking for it (“Mommy, I really need this 1980s track jacket. Can I have it – puhleeease?”), I tried on some evening wear. I will spare you the details here of managing kids while trying on clothes at Goodwill, but let’s just say that even though I found a dress that fit, we were so exasperated by our little critters that we left without buying the dress.  I guess you can say our adrenaline-induced “fight or flight” mentality kicked in and we decided to flee to the nearest beach and hunt for hermit crabs instead of spending a minute longer in the store. Fast forward an hour or two later: I was feeling much better and decided to go directly back to Goodwill stat, praying all the way that the $19.99 black wrap floor length evening gown I had tried on was still there. Hallelujah, it was! I grabbed the dress and went downstairs to pay for it – and found out that Goodwill was having a special promotion and my dress was half off. My evening gown now cost $9. Score!

The $9 dress. 

Unfortunately for my husband, Goodwill was still all out of bow ties. Luckily, I spotted an H&M later that day and decided to go inside in case they had bow ties. Low and behold – they did! Retail Price: $12.99.

Now we had everything we needed. And yes, a new bow tie cost more than an entire floor length black evening gown. Retail markup is amazing.

We went to the wedding and had a ball. Now we’ve got “black tie attire” for our next special event. And this time it won’t cost us anything.

 

 

Pan holding baking supplies

5 Great Kitchen Hacks to Make Baking A Breeze

As some of you know, I have been on a mission to eat clean this year, which also means I have been spending some major QT with my kitchen and all its accoutrements (like the oven). Over this time, I have discovered a few hacks that have helped me speed up cooking and have reduced the amount I have to clean. Without further ado, here they are (in no particular order):

  • When measuring, disregard the order of the ingredients in the recipe. Measure out the dry ingredients first. Doing so allows you to minimize the number of measuring cups and spoons you have to wash. Remember, you can always pour vanilla into a teaspoon that was previously used for salt and get all the vanilla out of the teaspoon. But if you do it the other way around, you’ll have a teaspoon that looks and smells like the rim of a vanilla margarita.
  • When a cake or loaf recipe calls for mixing dry ingredients into wet ingredients, mix the dry ingredients in the pan you plan on using to bake it in. I’ve noticed a ton of recipes tell us to butter the baking pan first. Why? There really is no reason to have a pan sitting unused on the counter for 15 minutes while we make the batter. So, let’s put it to good use. Instead of buttering the pan, use it to hold all the dry ingredients you need to mix together. Use a whisk to mix said ingredients together. Mix the wet ingredients in the mixing bowl like you normally would. Then, add the dry ingredients from the baking pan to the wet ingredients in the mixing bowl. Now your baking pan is empty again, and just in time for baking! Butter the pan, pour your batter into it, and throw it into the oven. Voila! Minus one bowl you have to clean.
  • Measure ingredients out over a baking sheet. Let’s say you’re going to bake cornbread (or anything for that matter) from scratch.  You’re going to need to measure out and pour/dump at least 5 different powdery substances (no, not that kind of powdery substance) into a bowl. Chances are, some of the flour/sugar/whatever is going to end up on the counter, which isn’t so bad. But it is annoying because now you have to clean it up else it will turn into mud on the counter or fall onto the floor where you’ll get to step on it and track it all over. NoThankYouVeryMuch.
    So, place the mixing bowl or pan (per previous tip) on top of a baking/cookie sheet. Dole out dry ingredients to your heart’s content. Your baking sheet will catch all the runaway ingredients and you can dump them into the compost or the sink, easy peasy. You could also do this over the sink, but that would require a sink that is free of dishes…which mine is not *ahem*.
  • Use mason jars as stand in measuring cups. I heart mason jars. I can use them for almost anything (drinking glasses, storage containers, mini flower vases, etc.) and now I can use them as measuring cups. If you have 8 ounce mason jars that have the ounce markers on the side, you can very easily measure out ingredients by the quarter cup (2 oz = 1/4 cup). Larger Quart sized mason jars will allow you to measure by the cup (1 = 1 cup, 2 = two cups, and so on).
  • Use clean kids medicine cups to measure out spices and/or salt. If you’ve got kids at home, you probably have at least a handful of those cheap medicine cups that come with kids Tylenol or Advil (You can also acquire them new at a pharmacy or drugstore). You can use a clean spare one to measure out ingredients from 1/2 tsp to 4 tsp. The bonus of this approach is that these stable little cups allow you to use just one hand at a time. So instead of holding the spice jar with one hand and putting a spoon in it with the other, you can just pour the spice into the little measuring cup. No second hand needed! This is a great save if you are carrying a child (for example) or are taking a selfie to prove that you do indeed bake. This hack also has the added benefit of saving space in your kitchen – just one little cup instead of several measuring spoons. Just make sure you do not use a medicine cup that has medicine residue in it. Tylenol (or any other medicine for that matter) is not a cooking ingredient (and for good reason).

And there ya have it. Happy Baking!

Advertisement for Rising Sun Boba

How to Not Eat Like a Puritan 

I recently visited some family in Southern California and went to one of my favorite cafes in Santa Monica. I love the fresh, real food and the crazy OMG-who-do-I-have-to-sucker-punch-to-get-a-table-around-here atmosphere. Plus, let’s be real – the desserts are pretty good too (Coconut Pound Cake, I’m looking at you!).

After waiting in line, we ordered and communicated some game time table wrangling strategies (“Okay, you stay at this table near the trashcan, and I’ll go see if there is one that is a little less ‘fragrant.’ If I don’t come back in 2 minutes, come looking for me – Not because an urbanite foodie killed me, but because I found a good table.”)

After a few minutes, we found our table and sat down with our coffees anticipating some delicious food and dessert. While waiting, I noticed Urth’s advertisement of its “Rising Sun Boba,” which it touted as “Urth’s New Healthy Energy Drinks!” Sitting there on the table it screamed “3 POWERFUL ANTIOXIDANTS IN ONE!” in giant, all red caps. I looked at the advertisement and realized that it was totally ridiculous. Not because no one should ever eat boba with Matcha green tea and chocolate (no judgment here!) but because the ad made me feel like I had to rationalize eating whatever I put in my mouth. I couldn’t just have green tea or chocolate (or coconut cake for that matter). No, I had to be eating POWERFUL ANTIOXIDANTS.” I couldn’t just enjoy boba (Yes, people, chewy tapioca balls in a sugary beverage is enjoyable). No, I had to be imbibing a healthy energy drink. And G-d forbid I try to enjoy a little bit of coconut cake without reason (“Umm…this cake is actually healthy because it’s got coconut, which is a fruit … errr a nut?? … and uhh…”).

Can’t we just eat food that we  really enjoy?

I don’t know about you, but I’m kinda over eating like a Puritan (Although apparently some historians argue Puritans ate better than we do today and even enjoyed eating dessert). Yes, we should eat healthy. Yes, I will eat healthy. And when I wanna have a boba drink that is loaded with chocolate or eat a piece of delectable coconut cake (mmm…saturated fat!) on occasion, then I will. And I will relish it. And that is totally okay. And healthy.

Just to prove I’m not talking crazy here,  a recent study demonstrated that savoring your food can help with weight loss even when you eat whatever you want.  This is a big deal since Americans say they enjoy eating less now than they did decades ago, and this disinterest in food has been associated with obesity.

What this means is that we can be healthier people just by savoring our food. So next time you eat, sit down at the table. Put a napkin on your lap and TURN OFF YOUR PHONE (that’s what should have been in red caps in the Urth ad). Relax, inhale the tantalizing smell of your food, and enjoy every bite. Bonus if you can find someone to share your dessert with.

Cheers and enjoy!

 

Raising Three Kids: Seeing a Doctor with a Newborn in Tow

Hello again from the trenches!

Over the past few months, I have gotten to go to the doctor (my doctor) with my newborn in tow.

In fact, I have seen one two three four doctors with junior: three specialists (one of which was my OB) and my good ol’ regular doctor. Mind you, before having three kids, I didn’t normally go to the doctor. Or bring a kid with me for that matter. However, as part of my hazing for being a mom of three with no family nearby (read: no free/emergency babysitting), I was blessed with needing to go to the doctor many times with a newborn. Here is a rundown of the two most memorable ones:

  • OB – 6-8 weeks post-baby, full exam. This is one of those mandatory appointments that is right up there with teeth cleaning (sorry, doc!)
    Like a pro, I planned my doctor’s appointment so that it would perfectly align between feedings during a time when my newborn was usually (can you use that word in the same sentence as newborn?) sleepy. I was so proud of myself.
    And naive. On this particular day my OB was running behind schedule, so much so that my OB walked in right as my newborn started fussing for some milk. “Ahh, what am I gonna do?” I thought to myself. After a moment of panic, I was struck with an idea: “My OB did just deliver my baby about 6 weeks ago and gave him to me to nurse then…so nursing him during my exam now should essentially be just the same, right?” Yup, I nursed junior through my whole doctor’s appointment. And you know what? My OB didn’t care at all. I heart OB’s.
  • Ophthalmologist – 8 weeks post-baby, “sick” exam. I’ll just come out and say it: I got pink eye from one of my kids. No matter how much I washed my hands and kept telling myself “Don’t touch your eye. Don’t touch your eye. Don’t touch your eye.”; I must have touched my eye. It’s hard to remember to do anything when you are in the newborn period (and are so. tired.).
    Since this was a sick visit, I had to go when the doctor had an available slot. I did a better job of keeping Junior all full and sleepy, but timed it with him being asleep in the waiting room and for the tech instead of for the doctor. So the ophthalmologist walked in right as baby was getting fussy. Hmm…maybe if I hold him, he will stop crying and we can get this exam over with? I asked the ophthalmologist for her opinion and she said that would be fine. After 30 seconds of figuring out how to hold a baby while your chin is in a chin-rest (hint: hold the baby up over your shoulder), the doc took a good look and we expediently finished the exam. Success!

Doctor visits #3 and #4 went much more smoothly thanks to the learning curve of my first two appointments above. My experience showed me that, generally speaking, medical professionals are nice people who want to help you as quickly as possible and understand that babies (and people) will be fussy at times. If you gotta go to the doctor with a baby in tow, just roll with the punches and do what you can to help the doctor help you.

 

Life with a Newborn: Take 3

Baby #3 is finally here (Yay!). The sleepless, drugged day-into-night time warp feeling has begun as has the overwhelming joy in having a new addition to the family (and to finally getting to enjoy chocolate and decaf coffee without heartburn again – hooray!).

Being our third time around the newborn baby block, I find myself thinking about how this time is different from all other times. So, before the fog of the newborn period lifts, I figured I’d write a post, one-handed, about how our third time on the newborn merry-go-round has been different than our first or second one.

  • Newborn #1: Parenting 101
    • Summary: Even though we thought we were prepared to become a family, we totally weren’t and our unrealistic expectations made the transition hard for us. We had no idea what we were doing and we held parenting books/websites and other people’s opinions in way too high regard. I googled e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g at midnight, 2 am, 3:30 am, 5:05 am, etc. and did silly things like expect my house to be clean like it was pre-baby (and then I religiously cleaned instead of napped to meet that high standard). I believed I could “have it all” and felt like a failure when I didn’t meet society’s ridiculously high standards for mothers. I second guessed myself all. the. time. My husband and I had very few dates and a lot of stress due to no family or friends-with-babies nearby and no sleep. When our adorable baby was less than adorable (hey, it happens!), I thought those moments would last forever, especially during long sleepless nights. I brought a suitcase full of baby supplies with me on trips to the grocery store and stressed over when and where to nurse and change the baby. In fact, I stressed over everything: Will giving my baby a pacifier ruin her developmentally or cause her to need braces? Am I a bad parent for putting my baby in a stroller instead of wearing her? Am I causing hip problems for her because I am wearing her?…
    • What I learned: Chill. out. Life with babies is different.
  • Newborn #2: Outnumbered 101
    • Summary: We had made it through one newborn, so we could do it again (high five for us!). This time we were a little smarter: I cooked and froze meals before the baby came. I reduced my work hours and requested a slightly longer maternity leave than I had the first time. We worked on saving some money before baby came. We found a sitter we trusted who could help us out. However, we still had a few silly beliefs, namely the following:
      • Whatever techniques we had successfully used and mastered for the first baby would work for the second baby.
      • That our older child would feel betrayed when we brought home a new baby.
    • What I learned:
      • Everyone is different, so how you build a positive relationship with them will be different. This is normal and healthy.
      • Any change, no matter how big or small (like reading Goodnight, Gorilla instead of Goodnight Moon), is a big deal to little people and will bring about big emotions. In the long run, the close love-hate-love sibling relationship your kids will form is one of the greatest assets they will have.
  • Newborn #3: Relationship Management 
    • Summary: This time, I feel a lot more prepared. I started getting all non-essentials out of our life before Baby #3 came; I unsubscribed from email lists, opted out of events, donated rarely used items to Goodwill, ruthlessly recycled mail I didn’t need to save … you get the picture. Then I made time for the important things in life: my marriage, my sanity (Read: carving out time for things that make me a happy and balanced person, like reading books or writing this blog), my friends, and my kids. My husband and I majorly lowered our standards and re-prioritized our time: When the newborn napped and the older kids were being watched for a few hours, we skipped cleaning the house and went out on a date instead (with our newborn, a.k.a. Mr. Wingman). We took turns sleeping when various kids slept and when they were all awake we took turns playing with them. I accepted any and all help from friends and family (and even asked for it!).
    • What I am learning: This third time around seems much easier than the other times (so far!). But then again, I’ve called in a lot of help from friends and family (and have gotten it – thanks, y’all!). I’m realizing if I just go with the flow and have some fun (and donuts and coffee with my spouse!), I can enjoy this crazy time. Attempting anything else is optional.

 

Picture of a squeaky crab

Raising Three Kids: When to Bathe

Bath time. It’s fun. It’s messy. Some kids love it. And some kids really (really) hate it. I like bath time, but I also find it challenging when there are a bunch of little ones around.

First, there is the time and people management piece. There are number of children to bathe to consider (Do I bathe them all at the same time? In quick succession? On separate days?) and how to handle the variety of kids who are dirtier-than-mud, Mr-Clean-clean, or somewhere in between.  I have also needed to start evaluating my options in case someone starts wanting snacks, needing to use the potty, or aspiring to world domination while I are up to my elbows in bath toys.

Then, there is the “optimal” amount of time in between baths. Do I go ol’ skool and bathe them daily? Do I strategically skip days so that I optimize the amount of good bacteria on their skin? How does using/not using soap change showering frequency? What if they want to join their sibling in the bath – does that reset the bath cycle?

But today, I figured out when I would know it was time to bathe my sweet, sweet baby: When he starts smelling like Umami. Yep, if I snuggle up next to him and inhale and am reminded of cheese or miso soup instead of Mr. Snuggles, I know it’s bath time. Mind you, he gets a pass if he just smells like goat cheese – anyone can smell like that with just a splash of dried spit up (Child’s play, really). I’m talking like a sharp cheddar or aged Romano. Love those smells from the kitchen, just not from the fat rolls hiding my baby’s neckline.

There ya have it: When to bathe baby – When he smells like miso soup. Or poop (obviously). No spreadsheet or predictive modeling required. Enjoy!

 

 

Raising Three Kids: Determining Pickup Time

My mother in law was visiting to help out while my husband had an especially busy workweek.

On the first day she was here, she said “So what time do we need to leave to pick up the girls from school today?”

It would seem like there is a very simple answer to this question, like 12:15. However, I have a newborn and our two preschoolers go to different schools, which have similar pick up times. So I have to bring my newborn to get the 2 year old from her school and the newborn and 2 year old to get the 4 year old from her school. It’s a little chaotic.

I thought about my pick up juggling act for a few seconds and then replied, “I have no idea what time I need to leave to get the girls. I’ve been trying to figure that out for the past week! Yesterday, when I picked up my oldest, she said ‘Mommy, why do you always pick me up late now?’ So … Yeah, I will let ya know once I finally figure it out!”  She laughed. I laughed too. No reason to stress over it while you are sleep deprived and the house is a disaster. Everyone is just lucky that I can feed them at this point.

Moral of the story – If you’re a parent of three young kids, it may take you a few weeks to figure out how to time everything so that you can pick your kids up on time. Things that need to go into your mathemagical equation include the following variables:

  • Nursing the baby (Baby’s gotta eat All. The. Time. Else suffer the consequence: Being in a car with a very vocal p*ssed off back seat passenger).
  • Burping the baby
  • Changing the baby’s diaper
  • Changing the baby’s clothes (If it’s wet, another outfit you get!)
  • Changing your clothes (Well, Junior just Niagra Falled on me so … new outfit with new undies it is!)
  • Remembering to make yourself presentable to outside society (Did I put on deodorant this morning?)
  • Putting the baby into his/her car seat (If baby is not already sleeping in said car seat. (S)he is your third child after all…)
  • Locating your keys/wallet/coat because you forgot where you placed them due to lack of sleep (Keys in refrigerator? Check!) or because your Mini Me’s played with them and relocated them on your behalf (Keys in laundry basket? Check!)
  • Figuring out the fastest route to school given fluctuating traffic conditions (Maybe if I take the surface streets here and then take the second most popular road, I can get there slightly faster…)
  • Getting your toddler or preschooler from the first pick up to cooperate so that you can get on time to your second pick up (Do I wait 7 minutes for my 2 year old to get into her car seat by herself or do I pick her up and do it for her and deal with a tantrum right before the next pick up?).
  • Getting the baby and toddler out of the car to then pick up your oldest (Because naturally you cannot pick up the older child first – she has a real “class” with a strict schedule – No Early Pickups Allowed – even though that would make your life a million times easier since you’d be dragging the older kid to get the toddler instead of the other way around).

In short, I’m still working on figuring out the algorithm to get to my kids’ schools on time. I’ll let you know when (if?) I ever find it!

Coffee with bagel

The (J)Oy! of Bagels

Eating clean. It’s been real, it’s been fun, and it’s been real fun. It’s also been adventurous. Recently, in my committed attempt to eat bagels that do not have additives (like derivatives of human hair in them – blah!), I decided to make my own bagels from scratch.

The idea came to me when I had stopped in my neighborhood bagel shop and saw that a single bagel cost a whopping $1.30! That meant that a dozen bagels would cost me well over a dozen dollars (even with the price break you usually get by buying a dozen of anything), and I had a hard time forking over so much money for something that was made with flour (cheap) and water (really cheap). But, there was no going back to the  store-bought, 12-for-$5 bulk bagels either. So in a flash of genius (or maybe sleep deprived delirium?), I decided I would cut out the middle man and make the bagels myself.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I love New York style bagels. There’s just something about their chewiness that makes them so much better than the lighter, airy bagels out there (sorry Montreal bagel lovers!). So I decided to try out a recipe for chewy, New York style bagels (which I found here).

Having baked bread before, I knew that I would need to allow ample time for the dough to rise (Read: This will be a multi-hour process). However, what I didn’t account for were the many steps involved in the bagel baking process, which also included shaping the bagels and boiling them.

Now don’t get me wrong here, boiling bagels takes like a whopping 5 minutes once you have the water going. That wasn’t too bad. But where the real added time comes in in cleaning up all the mess that comes from boiling bagels (where do you put a dozen wet bagels once you take them out of the pot?) and sprinkling on sesame seeds (“nature’s confetti”) … which makes a mess that is really <insert-adjective-of-choice> to clean up.

All that by itself would have been okay, but I had no idea how to then bake the bagels to get the flat bottom and nicely rounded top. Do you bake them upside down and then turn them over halfway or is it the other way around? Or, maybe you just leave them as is and hope they bake evenly? “Hmm…These are questions the neighborhood bagel baker who charges $1.30 per bagel would know the answers to…”

In any case, I made a few guesses and a big mess and ended up with deliciously chewy, albeit misshapen, bagels. I’ve never felt prouder eating an uglier piece of bread in my life.

At the end of my bagel-baking adventure, I had delicious, “clean” home-made bagels that cost me a couple bucks (and a lot of sweat equity) to produce. And more importantly, I held the neighborhood bagel baker (and his prices) in much higher esteem. Maybe $1.30 for a bagel ain’t so bad after all!

Shopping Clean: On Buying Real Food

In one of my previous posts, I shared with you my horror of learning about what I was actually putting onto my family’s plates: processed human hair. Gross!

Now that I have removed the offending “not-food” from my pantry, I have to ensure that when I shop, I shop clean and buy real food.

Now, I don’t know what your shopping routine is like, but mine is highly unpredictable, which can make it stressful at times. No, I’m not talking about impulse buys of ice-cream  at the grocery store (although I am definitely guilty of those!); I am talking about corralling preschoolers in a grocery store during the late afternoon when everyone’s energy levels are all over the place (Read: All I want is a nap) while I attempt to get through a grocery list quick enough to be able to have enough ingredients on hand to make something healthy and yummy for my family to eat. Some days this experience is amazing – my kids act like little angels, help me find items off my shopping list, take turns pushing the cart, and ask me to buy broccoli (for reals). And some days … well, let’s just say some very nice strangers come over to me to give me very kind words of encouragement (Thank you grocery store angels!).

In any case, I need some kind of quick and dirty way of figuring out whether an item is real food or just a poser, and I need to be able to figure it out while keeping preschoolers entertained and somewhere near my cart. This means I need to be able to evaluate a food in less than 15 seconds. To do that, I have developed a mental cheat sheet to help cut down on time. I’ve been working on this over the past few weeks and have found that over time, it has become easier and more automatic to choose foods that don’t have artificial preservatives, colors, additives, and flavors in them. Here are my tips in no particular order:

  1. Shop at places where it is easy to find clean food. I have found that I can drastically cut the amount of time I spend selecting food if I shop at places where clean, minimally processed food is abundant. For example, I have found that independent bakeries, natural foods stores, and farmer’s markets often (but not always!) have pre-made food that is fresh, made from real ingredients, and tastes really good.
  2. Restructure your grocery list so that the bulk of your food is unprocessed. For example, instead of buying a frozen chicken teriyaki dinner entree, buy chicken, fresh veggies (pre-cut if you want to spend extra to save on prep time), and a sauce (or make your own!). You’ll still have to read the ingredient label on the sauce, but at least you will know the chicken and veggies are fresh and unprocessed (plus you have more freedom over deciding which veggies and cuts of meat go into your food). Unprocessed foods that require little or no label reading include all the following:
    • Fresh fruits and veggies
    • Fresh cuts of meat
    • Dairy (milk and eggs).
    • Dried or milled foods (whole grains, dried fruits, beans, legumes)
  3. Read no more than 5-10 food labels during each grocery store trip. Yes, you will need to read labels to find out which foods are the real deal and which are posers. However, there is no reason to force yourself to read all of them in one trip. Decide which dishes you will “clean” ahead of time (Your favorite casserole? Stir fry? Pasta?) and then read labels for that type of food during that particular grocery store trip. The good news is that once you have found a clean substitute, you won’t need to read the labels again. The new brand will become your “go-to” brand (and who knows, it might taste better too!).
  4. Spend less than 15 seconds looking at a label. I don’t read food labels, I scan them looking for problematic ingredients. Here are some tricks I have to speed up reading labels:
    • Are there any ingredients I cannot visualize? …coconut milk…carrageenan… (“WTF does carrageenan look like?). Stop. Food goes back on the shelf.
    • Are there any ingredients my toddler cannot pronounce? …milk…calcium propionate…(“Pro-PIE-on-ate? PRO-pee-on-ate?”) All I know is I am not eating it.
    • Are there any acronyms in the food list? …chicken … PDMS… (“Is that like PMS???”) Doesn’t sound like a food. Out it goes!
    • Are there too many ingredients in this label for what it is? I know from cooking that pasta sauce has a handful of ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic/onions, and spices. If the label of the basic pasta sauce I am looking at has 2-3 times as many ingredients, it goes back on the shelf.
    • Is sugar one of the top 3 ingredients? I love sugar, but sugar should not be the star when it comes to my plate. For much of human history, refined sugar was not used in food plus it’s consumption been linked to health problems. Do yourself a favor and avoid foods that have sugar towards the top of the ingredient list (which means it makes up the bulk of what you are eating). My one exception: Treats or condiments that are supposed to be sugary (like cookies or jams).
    • If 15 seconds have passed and I am still reading the ingredients label, the food goes back on the shelf.
  5. Avoid Poser Foods. Want to drink milk that isn’t from a cow or goat? Want to eat cheese that is low (or no) fat or meat that isn’t from animals? Poser foods like these often have additives in them to make them have the consistency, aroma, or appearance of whatever real food they are imitating but with a lot less nutritional substance. If you really want the taste and texture of milk without buying the real thing, be prepared to spend a good chunk of time reading the labels of competing brands. Or spend that time googling a DIY recipe for it. Your homemade version might taste better than the store-bought one (or it might not), but at least you will know what went in it (and possibly have a funny story to tell about your epic cooking failure if your version doesn’t turn out so well).
  6. Buy items that don’t have packaging. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, meats, beans, etc. are exactly what they are and don’t come in packages. In addition to knowing you are buying a real whole food, you will also save time not having to read labels or un-package food. Plus, you can feel good knowing that you are reducing your waste by purchasing food that doesn’t have any packaging that needs to be recycled or left in a landfill to rot over the next several decades.