Friday, February 8, 2013

Setting the Table

This post has bounced around in my mind for a few weeks because it is what has been most often on my mind, but hasn't made its way to the Internet until now because I wasn't sure if I really wanted to lay  all of our woes out there for the entire cyber world to read, and because I don't want this to sound like a gripe session or a plea for help, since it is neither. I've finally decided to share, because I figure that I could only be an encouragement to anyone else out there with similar struggles if I am willing to be transparent here, and because I feel like keeping a blog about my life that doesn't include talking about what I spend 90% of my time and energy on would just be a lie.

Without exposing all the gritty details, let's just say that our food budget has been shrinking. Matt's employer, like so many employers now, is cutting overtime hours in an attempt to remain in the black, and this has made the budget, well...tight, to put it nicely. I am certain we are not the only family in this situation with the economy as it is right now, and as I look cross-culturally, and over the last few thousand years of human history, I know I have nothing to complain about. We are certainly not starving. But, maybe because I grew up in the most prosperous country in the history of the world and am used to tasty meals popping out of a microwave or pouring forth from a box, I am finding our recent shrunken food allotment to be a real challenge.

Feeding a family of seven on $400 per month takes a lot of planning and a lot of work. Add to that our dietary restrictions which cross off some of the cheapest and most readily available foods, and it is almost all-consuming (no pun intended) for me just to keep everyone fed.

In a month with 31 days, I have $12.91 per day to spend on groceries. Divide that by 7 family members and I am feeding each person in my family a diet free of gluten, corn, dairy, and most food additives for $1.85 per day! I am beyond clipping coupons and shopping sales. I'm cutting our meat consumption in half, cutting the variety of fresh fruits and veggies we used to be able to eat and now relying heavily on 175 lbs of gluten-free flours that I bought in bulk on the Internet. I shop at Aldi and I shop at an Amish store where I can buy in bulk, but certain special-diet products have to be purchased at other stores, like condiments without high-fructose corn-syrup (which Hannah cannot have), or the rice and coconut milks that I rely on since Naomi and Toby cannot have milk. What do we eat? Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, rice, beans, small portions of meats that are on sale, bananas, apples, some other fruits or vegetables if they're on sale, and now a lot of home-cooked gluten-free flour based items. I'm thankful for the flours we could buy, and everyone in my family is happy to be able to have homemade bread, biscuits, cookies, pastries, pastas, and pizza crusts. But I am so tired of cooking.

I'm really struggling with this. Struggling to keep up, struggling to be content. I used to hear stories about how my grandmother, a farm wife, spent her entire life in the kitchen. From before dawn until after dusk she cooked, served, and cleaned up meals. When one meal was over, it was time to start the next. And I used to think, "What an awful way to spend a life." But now I'm living it.

We cannot afford now the Cinnamon or Honey Nut Chex that were our breakfast staples. It's up to me to turn that flour into pancakes or biscuits or low-sugar cookies if my kids are going to eat breakfast. It's up to me to make bread, snacks, treats, and meals or there is literally nothing to eat. When the kids go to the cupboard they find dried rice, dried beans, and bags of flours and starches. Unless there happen to be bananas and apples in the house, if I don't cook, they don't eat.

Really, we're not starving. Tonight we had a huge ham that I had found marked down for being close to its "use by" date, with some homemade bread, green beans, potatoes, and a cantaloupe that was on sale. I blended some frozen bananas and we ate banana "ice cream" for dessert. There's a huge pile of ham left, so I'll soak some beans tonight and we'll have ham and beans tomorrow, and probably a potato and ham skillet the next day. We're healthy, we're fine. It's just that I'm so tired of it, and there seems no end in sight.

On Monday I made a homemade lunch, served and cleaned that up. Then I went shopping at three different stores to stock us up on our staples for the month. Then I came home and made a homemade dinner, served and cleaned that up. I weighed my dilemma as Matt tucked the kids in: tomorrow was the day I took the kids to their homeschool art class and packed a lunch to eat with the other families after class. I knew if I stayed up late to bake bread that night and packed sandwiches in the morning I would be able to rest after art class and chat with the other moms, but I was just too tired. Instead I went to bed early and packed some sausage, rice noodles, and no-corn-syrup spaghetti sauce to cook after art class.

Even though I made that choice, I resented standing at the stove on Tuesday after class. The other moms plopped their zero-effort sandwiches in front of their children and sat talking and laughing together. I stood, browning sausage and boiling noodles by myself while Elijah screamed impatiently in a high chair, and I resented it. I wished I had baked bread the day before. I hated that that was my only option. I hated that I had to cook every bite of food that could pass my family's mouths. When a friend joined me in my misery at the stove I actually fought back tears, and to my even greater surprise, I fought them back the whole rest of the day.

It wasn't until the kids were tucked in bed that I let myself just cry. Everything intellectual in me told me that I had a lot to be thankful for--including plenty of food and children who were healthy if I cooked it correctly--and that my current challenge was nothing that millions in third-world countries wouldn't envy, but weariness just took over my intellect. Matt, having perfected his advice-giving technique over  the 11 years of our marriage, had just the right words for me...a long, silent hug.

And after that most valuable advice, we talked some about how my ability to cook in larger quantities in order to cook less often was hindered by the sizes of my cooking equipment. We bounced ideas around again about bigger equipment we could buy or buying a chest freezer for the basement, and we played a little "What would the Duggars do if their kids had all of our kids' food allergies?" After we agreed that they would all die, I felt much better.

Matt reminded me that in the last few days I had managed to pull off really good barbecue chicken pizza, some yummy sweet potato soup, and a pot of baked beans that everyone liked better than Bush's.  "Kathy," he said, "I feel like in a lot of ways you've been given no straw, and you're making bricks. You are. And it's amazing."

I woke the next morning and cleaned-up my cluttered kitchen once more. I invited Naomi to pick out her favorite treat recipe from our "Cookies for Everyone" allergen-free cookbook, and I taught her how to measure out flours and starches. I let her stir the pot of sugars as they melted and crush the rice chex with a rolling pin, and we actually enjoyed cooking together. For dinner Naomi and Hannah both helped me measure the flours out for pancakes, and cheers rang out when Toby and Emma caught wind that their favorite dinner was sizzling in the pans. We all laughed and shouted together, "It's the pancake alarm, the pancake alarm!" as the overly-sensitive smoke alarm beeped over and over. Elijah didn't know what all the excitement was, he just knew that out of the whole house the kitchen was the most fun room to be in.

That's the way I want it to be. If I'm going to be living in the kitchen for the foreseeable future, by God's grace, I want to make it the most fun room in the house. Not that I won't have my occasional quiet tears of frustration, but that the overriding theme of my life would be, in the words of the apostle Paul, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength," (Phil 4:12-13).


  1. One of your cousin's posted a link to your blog post and I'm glad that she did. I feel your pain. You are a WONDERFUL mother I and give you SO much credit for putting all the time and effort you do into making their meals! I personally have an intolerance to dairy, gluten, tomato, garlic, eggs, and yeast with another whole list that I have to limit on a weekly basis! We like to joke at home about certain foods like Pizza, there is basically NO part of it that I can have. BUT - I am the only one in my family with this. Yeah, it sucks, we pretty much stick to a meat, veggie, and fruit diets, and you can never have enough rice! Everything is plain; no marinades, sauces, dressings, or everything as simple as mayo or ketsup! The day I walked into a health food store I walked out with nothing in hand. Who can afford a can of soup or a box of noodles at 3x the cost! I was one who shopped on sale with coupons. You can't do that with specialty foods! I hate cooking, seriously. Like you said, so many other things one could do with their time. So for dinner we (there are 4 of us) eat what I can eat, I do not make separate meals. HOWEVER, that is not the case for lunch and snacks. I just can't imagine doing it all day in and day out. My girls eat whatever throughout the day and I pretty much just eat leftovers or, plain rice; whatever we have in the house.

    Thoughts and Prayers to you and your family. Living with food allergies is not fun in so many ways, especially when you are watching what you spend, and the other sacrifices that come along with it.


    1. Thanks, Heather, your list of allergies is crazy too. It's good to know there are others out there dealing with this stuff.

    2. Before I discovered all of my issues I did freezer cooking nights. Granted, that doesn't help the budget because you're paying more out at once, but it does help with time spent in the kitchen. I would do like 8-10 meals at a time. Mostly different but sometimes there would be 1-2 of the same thing. Are there any meals that you could make double or triple of and freeze them to save for later? The meals I used to freeze were ones that didn't have to be cooked first. Again, this may not work - I don't do them anymore because we can no longer do the casserole type meals and everything is so simple and plain to start out with. Maybe you could make extra bread type items and freeze them though?

    3. I'm getting a big, new chest freezer delivered today! Now that I have the capability to make ahead and freeze I'm hoping to do a whole lot more of that! Thanks for the inspiration, now I know it can be done :)

  2. Hey Kathy ~ thanks for your post! There's 8 of us here .... including 4 kiddos that eat more than Glen or I :) We're trying to eat gf and without all the junk (colors, additives, corn syrup, etc) on about 350 a month. I'm in the kitchen ALOT. Our kiddos are in the kitchen ALOT helping me. There are days I feel like the cooking & cleanup & dishes & planning ahead & shopping will just swallow me up. There are days I struggle with these things and just want to give it up and give everyone that twinkie ~ but God continually gives me the strength to keep going. He also provides encouragement along the way just when He knows I need it.

    Our children are mostly older than yours so I can say keep training them and teaching them in the kitchen. Early on I'd shoo them out because it was easier to do it myself, but now I'm seeing the fruit of teaching them. Holly (6) is quickly becoming our official kefir shake maker by watching & helping me. Keri (almost 16) made a breakfast cake tonight so we'll be all ready in the morning.

    I also started trying to do simple multiple cooking ~ no all day sessions, just making 2 loaves of bread instead of one at a time ... didn't take that much more effort or ingredients, but stretched it out longer until I had to make more. I've also tried to make a little bit extra at suppers so we could use it for lunch instead of needing bread everyday. Making 1 1/2 x pancakes recipe to have some extra for a breakfast later in the week maybe. Guess it might not seem like it would save a lot of time, but it has helped me :)

    (hugs from PA!)

    1. Wow, Becky, I don't know how you do it on $350 honestly. I think I'm in the hard stage where my kids are eating like horses (and my kids can really eat!) but they're not really old enough to help much in the kitchen, though I am trying to teach them and hoping it will pay off one day. Add to that having a toddler who is constantly into everything and I feel like I can't get anything done.

      I find the hardest part of multiple cooking is not having cooking equipment big enough to hold the larger batches, but I'm trying to invest in some things that will allow me to do that.

      Anyway, it is good to know your family is making it work. It gives me inspiration :)

    2. I completely understand the feeling that I can't get anything done .... while I don't have a busy busy toddler anymore unfortunately ~ now I have 3 teenagers with a million words and thoughts a day that they'd like someone to listen to & discuss with them!! ha ha I remind myself that if this house ever gets too quiet I will probably go completely bonkers ;) Hopefully we'll end up with grandkids running around before that happens!

      Larger cooking equipment can be a challenge. We have a wonderfully creative Creator and there's been many times He's given me an idea of how to creatively make it work. Oh to be able to rest in Him day by day ~ He's SO got this all under control.

      Excited to see the news about a freezer ~ now to trust the Lord to fill it ♥