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).