Feeding The Cheungs

Feeding The Cheungs: Guilt, the Final Chapter

Okay, all those other posts I wrote pretty much all in one sitting and I've only edited them here and there before posting them. But this one is harder. I've started it nineteen times and it's still not coming out right. I HATE THAT.

Part of what's trying to escape my brain is: when you become a mom, food becomes this... this thing. Phillip and I ate pretty much whatever we wanted before we had kids, but now I put a lot more thought into it. All the parenting magazines like to splash it across their covers: You are your child's nutritionist! Think about what you are putting into his system! It better be organic and local and made from animals who slept on rainbows and pooped sunshine!

And then you meet all these other moms, at the playground or in moms groups or in church or whatever and you notice what they feed their kids. What kinds of snacks, what kinds of lunches. If you are like me, you don't compare the kids, you compare yourself to the moms. And whenever I compared myself on the food front I quickly determined that I was FAILING MISERABLY. 

For one thing, I rarely buy anything organic. I used to buy organic milk, but then someone told me that it doesn't really matter if milk is organic and I stopped buying it. I have no idea if that's TRUE, but have you seen the price of organic milk? Perhaps I was looking for any excuse. I buy plain old Kraft mac and cheese, though Annie's is also nice. I don't buy organic produce, I don't buy organic dairy products, I don't buy organic kid snacks - it's just too expensive. 

But it's not just buying organic, it's BEING AWARE! There are a million trillion things to BE AWARE OF and I will probably be the last person in the world to read In Defense Of Food. I feel bad about it, because I LIKE to be aware, but I also feel like I'm doing the best I can with what I've got. I've got one kid who eats nothing but preservatives and one kid who subsists on yogurt and Laughing Cow cheese wedges and a husband who will never be a vegetarian EVER and those are the people I am responsible for feeding every single day. Top it off with trying to feed them HEALTHY things and I have my work cut out for me. 

This is only as guilt-inducing as I allow it to be, of course. When Jack was teeny and we were meeting with three different moms groups, it seemed like everyone was drinking the neurotic new mom kool aid. It seemed like we were competing to be the first to bring up The Next New Thing To Freak Out About, thereby establishing our cred on that subject. BPA in plastics, organics, who knew how to make the best and most creative baby food, keeping chickens in your backyard, vegan skincare products - OH THE DRAMA. It was so stressful, and I'm willing to concede that it was entirely my issue, I AM. But I had to escape and escape I did. 

Now I'm a few years into this kid thing, I've got two of them now and I'm EXPONENTIALLY more laid back. You have no idea how proud I am of this fact. I might not come off very laid back on this website and probably not in real life, but I know the difference between my inner monologues during Jack's first six months and Molly's first six months and it is significant. I am a much better and easier going mom this time around. Mostly I am easier on myself. 

But I still have guilt around food. I tell myself that if I loved my family more I would spend less money on clothes or going out to eat or seeing movies with my husband and buy organic produce. Or even just buy food at the nicer stores. I know the bread I buy isn't very good - hello, I lived in EUROPE, I know good bread! - but I'm too lazy and cheap to go to the stores with the good bread, or make a special trip to a bakery. I feel like I put so much effort into feeding my family - not spending a lot of money, making sure I cook dinner most nights, finding things the kids will eat - but it's still not healthy enough. 

And it's not just wanting to do what everyone else is doing, or following what's in fashion or whatever- I really WOULD like to buy local and pay more attention to the kind of meat I buy. I think this food stuff is real and important and I would like to do my part. I'm just... BUSY! And not willing to spend what it costs.

That's what started this whole, uh, MANIFESTO on grocery shopping in the first place. Sitting down to make my menu and my shopping list, and realizing that the good food was at that store, but I knew what my bill would be if I went to that store. 

And all of this is just to say: feeding your family is a tough job. THE END!

Feeding The Cheungs: How Much I Spend At The Store

Budget smudget. We've been attempting budgets in some form or another for years now, and we've yet to land on The Perfect System. (Pretty sure The Perfect System would involve lots of extra money, probably this is why we haven't found it yet.) I took over The Finances when Jack was born and revamped our entire spreadsheet (multiple fonts were involved) and while we have a budget and I keep track of everything via Mint and my pretty spreadsheet, we ALWAYS go over. At this point in our lives, with one income and grad school, it's just sort of The Way Things Are. 

But we try, because we really want to, and now that I am in charge of The Finances, I am a Food Budget Dictator. The food budget (which is only groceries, not eating out or other items you occasionally pick up at the grocery store, just FOOD) is pretty much the only line item I am able to keep track of each month. By which I mean, I am AWARE of how much I've spent and how much I have left over at any point in the month. I don't always stay within my budget, but at least I know the minute I go over.

Anything remotely out of the ordinary trips me over budget. If we have a party, the food budget is blown. If we have friends for dinner and make an extra grocery trip: budget is blown. If PHILLIP goes shopping: budget is BLOWN. To stay on budget I have to 1) not feed other people besides ourselves and 2) do all the shopping and planning myself. Number one is lame, because I like having people over to my house and you should ALWAYS feed your visitors and that's when I start telling myself that maybe I am not staying within budget, but I am being a good steward of my money by FEEDING THE HUNGRY. As for number two, Phillip knows better than to offer to do my grocery shopping for me. Harrumph.

(At this point you may be wondering why we don't move some money around and increase the grocery budget, or just do away with it all together, but I need it, at the very least, as a guideline. And we don't ALWAYS have friends for dinner. And we don't ALWAYS throw parties. Sometimes the budget is well within reach!)

Basically, I make weekly shopping trips, and I try to spend $100 or less on each of these trips. (Perhaps it's not done to go around telling people what you spend on groceries, but since that is what this post is ABOUT and I have clearly GONE THERE, I might as well go all the way. Right? The end.) The official budget is $450, with that $50 trying to account for extras, but har har har we rarely stick to $450. See above: multiple ways to fail and/or choosing to go over. Sticking to the grocery budget in December is a joke. But January? ROCKED IT.

Staying within budget amounts to four trips to the grocery store a month. Other months I have opportunities, or I make a point, to visit Costco. In theory my weekly trips add up to less because I bought in bulk at Costco for the month, but Costco is the Target of food stores and I almost always go over budget during Costco months. Woe. I really need to stop going there which means Phillip really needs to stop always wanting to hang out in the TV section.

Anyway. After I make up my menu I inspect the fridge and the pantry for missing items. There are TONS of missing items, but I only write down what we need for that week. That includes dinner ingredients, but also whatever the kids and I eat for breakfast and lunch. So we always need milk and yogurt and bread and cheese. (What? Your kids aren't dariy-tarians?)

And then, when I go to the store, I ONLY BUY WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN ON THAT LIST. Well, maybe a handful of extra things (chocolate chips are on sale! Ooh, wine!) but I am actually pretty good at this part. I hardly ever spend more than $100 in one weekly  shopping trip. (It's the extra "Let's invite so and so tonight!" and "Party on Saturday!" trips that do me in.)

Also, since I am The Family Shopper and have been so for nearly three years now, I know what I'm doing. I know what we're going to end up throwing away, I buy store brands unless I know we prefer something else (store brand Cheerios? BLEAH.), and I know how much we'll eat of a particular thing in a given week. I collect coupons from the circular and sometimes the newspaper; they never save me very much but they make me feel nice and pious. I organize my list by section, I prefer not to bring the kids but I can if I must, and I go to the same store every week so I am a MACHINE, people. The sad part is how much I like doing it. The amount of joy I find in increasing my grocery store efficiency is an amount to which no sane person would actually admit.

It's kind of a competition I have with myself. How much I spent that week, how many dinners my husband seemed to really like. Yes, I know, MY WORLD IS SMALL. 

But I still try to figure out how to save more when I go to the grocery store. It's a time consuming process just going to the store, and also rife with Moral Dilemma! Tomorrow: But WHICH grocery store!

Feeding The Cheungs: Making A Menu

This wasn't really and truly hammered out and religiously adhered to until the arrival of Baby Number Two, but this is what we do: 

At some point towards the end of the week, I sit down with my favorite Target Post-It notepad, a good pen and the grocery store circular which comes in the mail every Tuesday. In my Previous Life I threw these grocery store circulars away. Junk mail! Boring! But no more. Do you know there are COUPONS in there? And I sit at the dining table wearing my Food Thinking Cap, trying to come up with dinners for the next week. (My dad, right now he is getting his comeuppance.) 

This is really hard for me. I mean, you know how some people love to cook and cook new things and try new foods? Um, yeah, that's not really my thing. I don't hate to cook - it's an awesome feeling when everyone eats the dinner you made that night! - but I never cook for fun. I'm just not INTO it, not like some people are. I LIKE food (obvs) but I'm pickier than the average adult (hangs head) and at various points I am low carbing or Weight Watchers-ing (I KNOW) and I truly and honestly wouldn't mind eating scrambled eggs for dinner every night. (Dessert? An ENTIRELY different story.) So I have a hard time thinking of dinner ideas. At one point I finally wrote a list of all the things I 1) know how to make with a fair amount of success and 2) are easy and quick enough to be weekly dinner menu items. This helped, but let's face it, that list is short, and that bugs. Not EVERYONE in my house wants to eat eggs every night, and maybe I don't want to cook for fun, but my overachiever side desperately wishes I'd improve. So, herewith, things I do to find new dinner ideas:

  • Hint around for food magazine subscription, open sub to Cooking Light on Christmas Eve, thank my mother
  • Make awesome internet friends who send me cookbooks (two so far! Would you like my mailing address?)
  • Call my mother, ask for the recipe of that thing she made last weekend
  • Idly ask my friends what they are making for dinner, go home and copy them
  • cooking blogs, though I have to admit, most of the time these intimidate the crrraaappp out of me

I have a handful of cookbooks I actually use, a lot I don't use, and a binder I bought someone else for Christmas (but decided to keep!) full of recipes I've printed out or acquired from friends or torn out of magazines. I would say about 75% of the recipes in that binder are for cakes. Sigh.

I have also stopped asking Phillip what he likes or wants for dinner that week. It's frustrating. He's either hedgy about saying what he really wants (or what he thought about last week's dinners) or he suggests something I don't like or don't want to make again. BOTHERSOME.

So I make my menu and it usually only contains three to five pulled-out-of-my-own-brain dinner ideas. This is because Phillip ALWAYS makes stirfry on Sundays (the only night he has time to cook), we ALMOST ALWAYS see my inlaws and eat with them on Mondays and Phillip ALWAYS has class on Friday nights which means I don't have to think about cooking. Oh, and one night is usually leftovers/Maggie-doesn't-feel-like-cooking night, and that night is completely at my discretion.

I try to make dinners with lots of leftovers early in the week, because Phillip brings them for lunch the next day. I look at our calendar so I know if we have anything going on in the evenings that might affect dinner. I try to factor the kids into meal planning, but half the time Molly wants to eat dinner at five, a full hour before Phillip gets home, and what I think is a kid-friendly dinner is often flat out rejected so WHATEVER, CHILDREN. So much for taking YOU into account!

I do go through the circular and see what's on sale. I have been shopping at the same store every week for nearly three years, so I know the prices of the things I buy all the time. But I try to pay attention to meat and vegetable sales, since that might dictate what's in the stirfry that week or whether Phillip gets to have steak. And I do a cursory hunt through the freezer to see if I've forgotten anything - which reminds me, I need to marinate tonight's tuna steaks! 

Grocery shopping - the part you were interested in in the FIRST place, you had NO idea what you were getting into, did you? - coming tomorrow!

Feeding The Cheungs: The Prelude

I would just like to say, first and foremost, that I think shopping for and feeding your family is a HARD JOB and those of you who said, "I'd like to read your tips on grocery shopping!" are going to be disappointed. I HAVE NO TIPS. Sorry! But I am going to tell you what we do, what works for us and what isn't working, and then spend a nice long time venting about Random Shopping- And Food-Related Quandaries. Ready?

First, some Background Info!

I grew up in a family that planned weekly menus and made enormous weekly shopping trips. We were two working parents and five kids, so it may be that this was the only way to ensure there was food in the house, but my siblings and I have had a grand time making fun of my dad and his lists. Everything from his handwriting to his menus, because isn't that such an OLD person thing to do? Plan MENUS? WHATEVER.

Then I became a Fledgling Adult and bought my own food, but I don't really remember cooking it. Oh, I would make little calzones when my sister came to visit my 10 square foot studio. And I would make this truly pathetic pasta and chicken dish for Phillip and his roommate. Phillip lived in a much nicer apartment directly across the street from a QFC (Kroger for the rest of you). I would park in the QFC parking lot, buy that evening's dinner and watch nineteen episodes of Friends with Phillip and Phillip's Roommate while we ate our pasta and chicken. Good times. Seriously! 

This continued when we got married (and with the roommate! Well, he ceased to be the roommate, but we still ate pasta and chicken in front of Friends every night.)  We didn't have a method for grocery shopping or making dinner, and in fact, grocery shopping turned out to be a fricking huge deal. People say the first year of marriage is really hard. For us, it was only the first month that was really hard, and that was probably because of grocery shopping. We shopped so differently that eventually we decided, for the sake of the marriage, that this was something we should not do together. EVER. You'd think we'd have figured this out while dating (it's not like GROCERY SHOPPING is one of those things you "save for marriage"!) so I don't know what our problem was. BUT IT WAS A PROBLEM. 

After a while we got into the swing of things and we took turns buying and cooking. Phillip makes a million different kinds of stirfry (all of them delicious) and he would do all the stirfry shopping and cooking. I made sure we had things like flour and butter and bread and eggs, and I made everything that was not stirfry, although not very often because (and this will be important later) I am a rotten cook. We bought these things as we needed them - never on any schedule or system - usually on our way home from work, with no thought for what we might do the following night. 

But now - NOW we are a one working parent, one stay-at-home parent and two very small children family and we cannot just dash across the street to the QFC, load a bunch of items we'll use only that night in the cart - without looking at the prices - and make dinner at eight. I WISH, right? I totally miss my child-less evenings of yore! But that kind of shopping and cooking is NOT happening. Not for a VERY LONG TIME. 

Tomorrow: Menus! Not just for my dad!