Recipe: Pumpkin Butter

It’s the last week of September. That seems crazy to me!

If you spend time on Pinterest at all, and like to check out recipes you’ll probably have noticed the explosion of pumpkin recipes on there in the last couple of weeks. I personally am loving it. I’ve recently discovered that I LOVE pumpkin and have been trying to use it as much as possible, especially since it’s a “free” food on Weight Watchers.

Typically I’ll always roast at least one pumpkin and after it cools enough, I’ll puree it, bag it and freeze it so I always have some on hand for whatever might strike my fancy. Our pumpkins in Haiti are actually closely related to acorn or butternut squash, so they’re really versatile. I can use them to make pumpkin pie, or I can cook them like I would squash for dinner. I can make soup. The other day I put some puree in chocolate cupcakes in place of oil, eggs and water and they’re super moist and delicious. Can’t even tell there’s pumpkin in them.

worldcropsorg pumpkin

The West Indian Pumpkin, or calabaza. The outsides really look like a squash and vary from dark green to white, with the shape being round through to cylindrical.

One of the new recipes I’ve tried is Pumpkin Butter. I knew I would love it, but wasn’t sure about the rest of the family. Turns out Chris has been eating it by the spoonful. I mainly wanted something tasty that I could smear on toast instead of sugary jam. The great thing is that you can do so much with it. I’ve put it in yogurt and I’ve mixed it with hot water then added it to coffee to make a latte. All have been delicious.

Pumpkin Butter

Ingredients:

1 (29 oz) can of pumpkin puree, or 3 1/2 c fresh puree
3/4 c water (you can use apple juice too)
1/2-1 tsp ground ginger (I used 1 tsp the first time but will cut back a bit for the next batch)
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4-1/2 c brown sugar (I used 1/2 c but will be cutting back next time for personal taste)
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp lemon juice

Instructions:

1. In a large pot combine all ingredients.

2. Simmer on medium to low, stirring every few minutes (I actually found myself at the stove for most of the time because it smelled so good and it was soothing to stand there stirring for some reason). The mixture will become lava like and will bubble and spit, so be careful.

3. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until mixture becomes thick. If you stir and lift the spoon out it should thickly coat the back without dripping off easily. You want it about the consistency of thick ketchup.

4. Remove from heat and let stand for about 30 minutes to cool down a bit. After that you can put it into a jar or container and refrigerate. As it gets colder it sets up more and becomes a thicker spread. It should make a large mason jar full.

This really is super yummy and would make a sweet gift for a friend this fall.

Sadly I didn’t get a photo of this little bit of heaven. You’ll just have to take my word for how amazing it is :)

~Leslie

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Recipes & Homemade Yogurt

Thanks SO much for the encouragement after yesterdays post, both here and on Facebook.

I’ve had a few friends ask me to post some of the things that I discover that we like to eat so they can try them out as well, and several people from here in Haiti express the same frustration about needing healthier options. To help you out I’ve started a new “Recipes” tab on the top of the blog. I’ll try to regularly post recipes here and then have all the links on that page so they’re easy to find. Eventually I’ll also go back through and find all my old “Food Week” posts and include those as well.

And, for those of you in Haiti (or anywhere “off the grid”) I’m going to include any specific Haiti related info when applicable. Sometimes I find certain things in certain places that others might not know about, or have figured out how to make substitutions to get the same taste with local ingredients.

To kick things off, lets talk about homemade yogurt!

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I enjoy yogurt on fruit and with granola, in smoothies etc. More recently though, I’ve been wanting good, thick greek style yogurt for cooking with. You can use it in everything from baking to salad dressing. But, in Haiti imported yogurt is expensive. So, I’ve learned to make my own. I will be honest here, it hasn’t always worked, but yesterday I made a killer batch and feel like I finally hit the sweet spot, so I’m going to tell you exactly what I did.

A few things first, though. You need an “active” starter yogurt. What that means is that you need some yogurt that has live culture in it. The best way to know that it’s live is that it needs to be refrigerated, or it will say right on the package that it has live culture. The thicker your “starter” the better. You can buy a personal size yogurt and use it as your starter, then with each batch take some out and set it aside to use as your next starter. Haiti does make yogurt – the Yogurt A Go-Go stuff. You can find small bottles, and half gallon jugs. It’s more runny, but you can thicken your milk and over time each batch should get thicker because your starter will be thicker.

Concerning milk – you can use whatever kind you want, as long as it’s not “ultra pasteurized”. We get fresh milk, but I’ve successfully made yogurt here from powdered milk. I do think “thicker” milk makes thicker yogurt.

Homemade Yogurt
Makes two large yogurt containers – great for a family!

Ingredients:
6 c of milk, warmed
1 c thick cold “milk” (I used 1/3 c powdered milk and 2/3 c water to make something more like cream)
1/3-1/2 c “starter”

Instructions:

  1. In a large pot warm your first 6 cups of milk. You don’t want to boil it! Just warm it to the point that you wouldn’t want to keep your finger in it. Turn off the heat.
  2. Stir in your cold milk, and keep stirring for a few minutes. You want to slightly reduce the temperature so you don’t “cook” your starter. What you’re aiming for is a nice, warm place to incubate your yogurt culture so it reproduces. Cooking it kills it, and refrigeration stalls it. You just want nicely warm :)
  3. Stir in your starer. You don’t want chunks, so use a whisk if you need to to break everything up and evenly distribute it.
  4. Pour your milk/yogurt into clean containers. Tightly close the lids so water cant get in.
  5. Fill a large pot about 2/3 full of warm water, or heat the water so it’s warm to the touch. Again, we want to incubate. Place your containers in the water bath and put the lid on. You don’t want water going over the tops, but rather to just below the lid line. You want your yogurt cozy :)
  6. Place the pot in the oven, or wrap in a towel. The oven is insulated so it will keep the heat in the pot. Let the pot sit for the day, and periodically check to see if it’s still warm. You should be able to touch the outside of the pot and feel warmth. If it’s getting cooler, just pop it on the stove for a few minutes, or turn on the oven for a few minutes to generate some heat.
  7. After about 8 hours you should have yogurt! Remove it from the water bath, dry off your containers and pop them in the fridge.

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No the best picture, but you can see how thick my batch turned out. I did use a greek yogurt starter, which helped.

Note: This is for plain yogurt, but it’s easy to sweeten it too if you prefer. For vanilla, just add a few tablespoons of sugar (to taste) and a teaspoon or two of vanilla before you pour it into your containers. You can also divide the batch and keep part of it plain, and flavor the other half before incubating so you have some variety. Chris will often take plain yogurt and just add a tablespoon of jam for flavor when he eats it.

Also, you can play with your “thick” milk vs. regular milk quantities. If you didn’t get the thickness you wanted, make more thick milk next time and use less regular milk. I think the fat content does make a different when “feeding” the live starter.

Tips & Tricks: If your yogurt is thick, but not quite the thickness that you want/need, like greek yogurt, you can strain some of the liquid out. No joke! You can use a cheese cloth, or even a cotton dish towel. Just put it in a strainer and pour your yogurt into it, then let it sit. You’ll see the fluid come out and you’ll be left with thicker yogurt. If you want a type of yogurt cheese, you can strain most of the liquid out and have something that becomes spreadable.

Enjoy!

~Leslie

My Mom Journey: Dealing With the Weight

It’s been a long time since I posted a “My Mom Journey” post. I’m putting todays post under that category because really, it completely affects how I mother.

Since puberty I’ve had weight issues. I come from tall genes on one side, and Ukrainian genes on another. They’re known as what we all like to call “big boned” people. I’m 5’10”, so I actually carry my weight a lot differently than most people with the same number of pounds on their frame. That’s good and bad. Good in the sense that a higher number on the scale is normal for someone of my stature. Bad in the sense that it’s easier to let that number creep up because it doesn’t look the same as someone who might be even 3 inches shorter than me. And there in lies the problem. The creeping.

Through my life my weight has slowly crept up. I don’t come from an athletic family. My dad is 6’4″ and his whole life heard comments about what a fabulous basket ball player he must be – except he is the first person to admit how awkward he looked as a teenager while running. So no, not a sports family. I grew up playing outside, but the only team sport I ever played was a couple seasons of soft ball.

My weight has always been a self esteem issue, like most people that struggle with their weight. But, in my case, I’m not a binge eater or struggle with major eating disorders. While my weight bothers me, it’s not the only thing that identifies me. Rather, it’s a problem that I’ve been too lazy to do anything about consistently. I have started several times, only to peter out after a while and go right back to my bad habits of eating portions way bigger than I need to, and doing very little activity. It doesn’t help that I actually really love food. I love the taste, the experience and the process of making it. Food is emotional for me in that it comforts and I use it to celebrate.

People who have gone through major weight loss tend to tell you that they finally got to a point where something just “clicked” for them, and the decision to do something about it finally stuck.

A few weeks ago I finally got to that point. And it wasn’t this big epiphany, it was more like, “Okay, this is it.” I know getting there has actually been a process full of thought for me. Because I’ve tried several things in the past I knew certain things just weren’t for me. Stuff like:

  • I hate counting calories. It actually has adverse effects for me when I see large numbers, even if the food is healthy. I feel guilty. It’s strange, but that’s the way it is. And yet, most often the most successful weight loss stories all have calorie counting in common. I get the principle and agree with it, but it’s incredibly hard mentally for me.
  • I hate feeling deprived. Any program where I’m told I can’t possibly eat the foods that I like because they will cause some sort of derailment in my weight loss only leads to disaster. As in, I get to a breaking point where I don’t just fall off the wagon, I throw myself off the side, roll under the back wheel and get left in a dust cloud.
  • I have really lousy will power. I need something that is encouraging, not boot camp style where I feel like I’m not hitting the mark because I miss a work out or something like that.

Over the summer the reality hit me that I was missing out on certain things with our kids because I literally felt like I couldn’t do them. I don’t feel comfortable running, so even running after my kids for some reason is always a check point. What if there was an emergency? Could I respond fast enough? When I had to honestly answer that I didn’t think I could, it was a wake up moment. What about the kinds of activities we can do as a family when we’re on vacation? Is my weight limiting us? The answer is yes. We don’t have a lot of cash to spend on the fun things, so we need to make our own fun. So many free activities revolve around being physical, and yet I was the one not wanting to do those because I didn’t feel I could. That’s a problem. How many experiences are my kids missing, even if it’s just something simple like walking around town and exploring? And lastly, I’m trying to teach my kids how to have a healthy relationship with food at a young age, but what example am I setting? If I tell them they don’t have to clear their plates, but rather can stop when they feel full, yet can’t do the same thing for myself, they will eventually notice that. And how do I tell them that they need to ask themselves if they’re really hungry, versus being bored, when they ask for a snack, if I’m snacking because I’m bored or have an emotional hole that needs filling? I don’t want to be hypocritical.

So, what did I do?

I joined Weight Watchers online. And you know what? It’s working for me, and most of all – I LOVE IT!

This is why:

  • I love the point system. For me this is so much better than tracking calories, yet it’s essentially the same thing. I get a daily allotment of points based on my current BMI (body mass index) that was calculated when I signed up. Tracking points feels like a game, so I don’t mind doing it every day. And, I was able to download the app for my iPhone and our iPad, so it’s easy to track things on whichever device I’m in front of, and it updates to my account so it’s the same right across the board. No need to try and remember things for when I’m in front of my computer.
  • Fruits and veggies are “free” foods, with the exception of a couple things like avocados which have a lot of great things in them, but also have a higher fat content. The point is that WW encourages the eating of as much fruit and veggies as you can during the day, so they encourage you to go to those foods first because they’re the most nutritious. Knowing that those things are a zero point value, I do find myself going to those as options first before something else.
  • You can eat what you want, as long as it falls in your point allowance for the day. I just have to make sure I track it. I haven’t felt deprived at all. If I want a treat, like a piece of cake at a missionary meeting, I eat it, track it, then choose other lower point foods for the rest of the day.
  • There are a ton of great tools like an activity tracker that gives you extra points to use, a recipe builder that calculates the points in a serving, and helpful articles and a community to get connected to – if you want to.
  • It’s affordable. Depending on where you live, the cost is about $20/month. For some reason a couple years ago I thought the cost was higher, so I didn’t consider WW. I’m sad I didn’t now. Rather than look at it as an expense, I’m looking at it as an investment into my health and the life of our family, and in that frame of mind it’s well worth it.

What I’m learning…

Wow. So many things! Chris just saw the title of the post and asked how being on WW affects me as a mom. This is how…

How food affects me. I seriously had no idea just how much what I was eating was affecting me. I knew that there were emotional issues because I felt cruddy about my weight in general, but I had no idea how certain types of foods were affecting my overall mood and how my body felt.

In the last year I’ve been feeling more overwhelmed with life in general. I’m kind of in a fog and not feeling really productive. I felt cranky most days, and would be on edge. Excessive noise would bother me, and I had a hard time feeling calm.

Since I’ve been eating better and not eating as much refined foods like pasta, or carb dense foods like rice, bread etc I’ve noticed a BIG change. When I have eaten those things I’ve quickly seen how those foods hit me. I get really tired for an hour or so after eating pasta, for example. This past week was a training class, so I wasn’t cooking but rather eating a LOT of rice and carb heavy foods. I’ve felt bloated and tired and cranky again.

When I’m making healthier choices I feel calmer. Last night for example, Alex was waiting for dinner and threw his plate on the floor. I was on edge and the noise startled me really badly. I hadn’t felt that way in the past couple of weeks, but had been feeling that way before I started eating better. The first thought in my mind was the realization that I wasn’t feeling calm, and I knew it was because my body was struggling.

Being accountable with myself. The point tracking is working for me. In the past when I’ve tracked calories, because of my weird mental relationship with them, I would find I felt guilty at times, and would skimp on the right portion amounts so I wouldn’t have to see the high number. Or, eventually I would just stop tracking.

This past week I made it a goal to track everything I was eating, as best as I could. I recognized that even while I wasn’t doing the cooking I had some idea of what was in things. I made a great effort to get as close as possible with things in the tracker, to enter the proper quantities of what I was eating, and account for how Haitians cook – like literally adding a tablespoon of oil to a meal in the tracker because I knew what I was eating was grease filled. And then after all that, I gave myself some grace.

What I found was once I knew what the point value was for, say, a cup of rice, I could eat a right amount for my hunger and stay very close to my point allowance. Knowing that it was a week full of heavy point meals, and frankly, heavy meals period, I didn’t snack much but rather left my points for meals instead.

I also paid attention to how I was feeling on a different diet, and the information gathered is really useful! I’ve come to realize that it’s more worth it to feel good, to be in a good mood, and to be able to deal with life better than it was to stuff myself. At the end of the week all I want is good food. Seriously, I made a big salad last night, and this morning there wasn’t a starch in sight when I made breakfast. My body doesn’t want it right now.

All through the week I really worked hard at being accountable with myself. And I’m proud of myself for getting through the week, not feeling guilty, and doing a good job! I really am proud. I feel good about staying on track in a difficult food situation. And, it’s one week! Why should I let one week determine my success or failure?

Learning portion sizes. This is probably one of my biggest struggles, and has lead to the most pounds gained. For most of my life I’ve eaten with my head, not with my stomach. As in, if I think it’s the right amount of food or it tastes good, I will let that override any messages my body might be sending me about what it needs, or when to stop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat at a table and chosen to take more, even though I felt full, simply because I thought something like, “It tastes really good, a little more won’t do anything bad,” or, “I might not have this again for a really long time. Better eat it while I can!”

Now that I’m having to be very conscious about portion sizes I’m learning what my body needs to function. What my heart might need is an entirely different thing. Food is for energy and nourishment, not to fill any emotional void.

I’ve switched to using smaller plates when I eat, so that visually my brain sees a full plate of food. That makes a difference for me. It also helps with not feeling deprived.

I am measuring things. What does a cup of macaroni and cheese look like? Or 3 oz of steak? For years I had told myself that I knew, but the truth was, I had no clue. I was lying to myself.

The really interesting thing is that I’m feeling full. I look at the big plates in our cupboard and think, “Those look huge!” and wonder why I felt the need to fill them. Yes, I’ve felt hungry, but it’s a good kind of hungry. The truth is, rarely in the last few years have I allowed my body to feel hunger. And, I’m realizing my body needs less food than I thought it did – if I’m making good choices about the type of food I put into it. Things that used to be the foods that gave me comfort, like cheese and pasta, are slowly doing that less, and I’m happy about that.

Learning to be gracious with myself. I have a lot of weight to lose to get to a healthy weight. That can be very overwhelming when I look at the big picture. Thankfully WW focuses on smaller goals. I’ve been feeling encouraged when I see the scale going down, and being able to see how close I’m getting to the first goal of losing 15lbs.

But, after this week and eating what I have, I gained a bit. Rather than feeling guilty though, I can see the situation for what it is – a time where I was in a situation where I didn’t have the healthiest options in front of me. I can see how that has affected me emotionally, and most of all, I can feel  what that has done to my body. I know I’m bloated up right now, and that while the number on the scale when I weighed in wasn’t what I wanted to see, I can accept it. But, I know that I had a lot stacked against me this week, and I’m choosing to be gracious with myself and focus on the things that are good and working. I tracked everything, everyday. I was conscious about portion sizes. I tried to account for the extra oil. I did some gardening so I got some activity in, and those points earned went towards days where my points may have been over. I paid attention to how I was feeling after eating this way.

The biggest thing is, I know that today is a new day and I can make choices today. I don’t feel defeated like I have in the past, and I don’t feel like all is lost or that I’m just done. Rather, I spent today planning some good, healthy meals and am working on getting back to feeding my body healthy food. Chris and I have talked about what we can change on the class week menu too, so that we’re all eating better through the week.

Getting excited about healthy food. In the past I got frustrated with other plans because we live overseas. I don’t have access to “light” foods. I don’t have access to many of the brand name things that get included in calorie counters. It’s not always possible to eliminate certain kinds of food from my diet.

One of the great things about WW is that it’s fabulous for people like me who love to cook. Most of what we eat is from scratch simply because if I don’t make it, we don’t have access to it. With WW I can input my recipes, how many portions it makes, and get a point value for it that I can use any time I eat it. That’s hugely helpful. And for some reason the recipe builder is just easier to use than others I’ve tried.

Most of our produce is from right here in Haiti, and because most farmers can’t afford it, they don’t use chemicals or pesticides – so most of it is organic. We have a really good variety of stuff available to us as well, and because Yonese has worked for our family for a long time she’s really good at shopping. If she sees something I’ve forgotten to put on the list or she knows we like it, she buys it along with everything else. Our juice is homemade, so we can control how much sugar is in it. Our coffee is hand roasted on site. Our meat is so lean I have to literally add oil to the pan when frying ground beef or it sticks like crazy. We have an endless supply of beans, and a variety of grains. There is really no excuse for us to not eat fabulously healthy meals.

I’ve found myself in a cooking rut lately. I meal plan, but tend to make the same things every month. With focusing on how many points are in food, I’m finding that I want to try new things and see what I can incorporate that I may not have before. I should mention that typically Chris is a meat and potatoes guy, Olivia has recently decided there are things that she doesn’t like, and Alex will eat most things. I’ve already recognized that this isn’t just about me. I’m not going to be cooking separate meals for myself than I do for the rest of the family. So, I need to find good, healthy choices that are tasty and something we’ll all enjoy. I love Pinterest for this! Seriously, there are a wealth of fabulous healthy recipes on there. Even though we don’t see the same seasonal changes here as we would back home, I’m very aware of the fact that it’s September and my brain is all over pumpkin (Haiti’s variety is a cross between a cooking pumpkin and an acorn/butternut squash – super versatile!) and things like stews and soups.

While I’m thinking about the kinds of food I’m eating, I’m also paying attention to how I feel afterwards. I love that in the tracker on WW you can write in how you felt after a certain meal. Did I feel full? Tired? Being aware of those things is helping me to make better choices too. For example, oatmeal is great for our bodies, but it doesn’t keep me full for more than a couple of hours. Knowing that, I can pair up a portion of oatmeal so I’m getting the benefits of it, with a hard boiled egg for the protein that my body needs to feel satisfied longer.

Not hiding. I think anyone that battles weight issues feels shame about talking about them to some degree. It’s cultural. Our North American culture looks down on people who aren’t thin. We tell ourselves it’s all about health, but there are healthy, active people who have more meat on their bones, and there are thin people who have major health issues. I think living in a different culture has caused me to look at my body differently. In Haiti, being bigger is often looked at as a good thing. It says, “I can afford to eat well.” When we got engaged, Haitians congratulated Chris on finding a big woman as a wife. Sometimes I cried, but then got to the point where I knew it was a complement. In Haitian culture it meant Chris could afford to take care of me well. It’s also not abnormal for me to get comments on how beautiful I am, and it’s very normal to see larger women sporting bikini’s here. It makes me realize that the version of “beautiful” that I grew up with is off in many ways because it teaches people to be insecure, rather than confident in who they are as a person, not just in how they look.

Typically I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing everything in this post with many people. But, you know what? I want to. This time I don’t want to be ashamed because I might be worried about what will happen if I struggle along the way. I want friends and family to know so that I don’t have to explain why I might not eat something. I want them to be able to ask how I’m doing and to be able to answer honestly, even when I might be struggling. I guess I just want to be real and to stop hiding behind what’s sitting around my butt, and let my heart speak.

I’m grateful for a couple of friends who wanted to buddy up on facebook, so we can share our personal journeys to getting healthy. We’re all in different places, in different circumstances, with different goals. But, we can support each other by checking in every week and sharing where we’re at – whatever that may be! Yesterday I also shared the fact that I’ve joined WW with a friend here in country who also wants to lose weight. It felt good to share and talk about it, what was hard, what’s working and to be able to encourage each other, and to open the door for that in the future. I’m realizing that one of the mistakes I made in the past was trying to keep my attempt at losing weight a secret, mostly because I was afraid I would fail. If I did struggle there was no one to help me pick myself up, so it was much easier to let it go all together.

I’m so grateful for Chris through this. We’ve had a lot of learning lessons along the way about how we talk about my weight. He’s had to learn that certain things are difficult for me, and I’ve had to learn to communicate those. When I told him I signed up for WW do you know what his response was? The first thing he said was that he was proud of me. The second thing he said was, “Tell me what I can do to be supportive and helpful. If I say something stupid, let me know. If I complain about what we’re eating as a family, tell me to shut up.” I *may* have cried right about then because I knew he meant it. And he’s kept saying it. When I have a good day I can tell him. And when I learn something, I get to share that and see his encouragement. When I’m feeling different like I am right now, we’re talking about those things. I’ve recognized that this process is going to be a big life change for me, and if he’s not a part of that, then we’ll be strangers. But, it takes me being vulnerable through that process, even when I’m struggling and not feeling good. The great thing is that those are the times where he’s saying, “It’s great that you’re seeing those things. Now you know how to do this better.” And I love him for it. Heck, I made vegetarian black bean burgers to have in the freezer for when I need an easy meal for myself and he asked when we get to have them for dinner. He hates cooked vegetables. That’s love.

This is a journey for me, and it’s one that affects every part of who I am and how I parent. I don’t want to hide it, but rather be able to share progress, what I’m learning etc. Especially because I’m doing it in the mission field. How exactly, does that work??? I’ll try to share updates regularly (maybe monthly, or something like that?!?).

Time to go cook dinner! I hope you all have a great week.

~Leslie

My Mom Journey: Meal Planning

Have I ever mentioned how much I love food? Seriously. For some people, food is just something that gives their body energy, and from a weight gain perspective, I’m jealous of that. For others, others like me, food is an experience. God decided to give me extra taste buds in my mouth (fact!) which gives me heightened taste receptors. I can be called a “super taster”, if you will. Because of that thing foods either taste super good, or super yuck. There are fruits here, for example, that can be tart and sweet at the same time. Chris and Olivia love them, but when I eat them, I pucker up and shake my head no. Too intense!

Because of things like my super taste buds, if I’m going to eat something, I want it to be yummy. Also, cooking is something I enjoy doing – most of the time. Feeding people is one of my spiritual gifts! Just kidding. But, in reality, I love that something I enjoy doing can not only nourish peoples bodies, it can nourish their souls too. All of our missionary friends get excited when we have them over for dinner because it’s a treat for them, even if I make something simple like spaghetti, and I love that we can love on our friends this way. One time our board of directors even made a comment about the fact that it was really a part of Chris and I’s ministry to the other missionaries in our area and that they loved that we did it (which is great because the mission covers most of our food budget!). I loved that they saw the value of it and encouraged it.

That said though, the whole process of cooking here can be challenging. It requires planning – lots of it. Most of the produce in Haiti is sold in the open market, and there are certain days of the week that are “market day” in each area. On those days marchands will come from all over to sell what they have. On non “market days” there are still people selling, you just don’t find the same variety that you would on a “market day”. In our area Thursday is our big market day, so each week we send Yonese to go get all of our fresh produce. We can get quite a good variety in our area, though some things you can only find in Port au Prince. Aside from fruit and veggies, we also get our eggs and fresh milk from the market, and most grains like beans, rice, flour,corn meal, sugar etc. We can also get these things in the stores locally, and often due if we’re running out before market day, but it’s less expensive to buy them in the market.

Other things like condiments, meat, cheese, etc are bought in the local small grocery stores. We used to do a big shop about once a month in Port, but since the beginning of this year one of the local grocery stores has been bringing in a wider variety of things and will even order meat in for us that they don’t sell in the store on a regular basis. Because of this we hardly ever have to shop in Port anymore, which is a huge time saver. The trip up to the grocery store itself could mean an hour in traffic each way.

Even if I need something from the store, it’s a 20 minute drive each way. We try to use our trips to pick Olivia up from school to do any shopping in town that we need to do, but again, that takes planning.

So, how do I put it all together so that life is actually simpler, rather than more complicated in an already complicated situation?

I meal plan!

I started doing this several years ago and it helped us immensely in so many ways.

First off, I really don’t love trying to figure out what to make for dinner at 4 pm. We get up really early and our work day starts at 6 am, so by the time late afternoon rolls around my brain is done for the day. Trying to figure out what to make for dinner with what I have on hand sucks. So I stopped doing it.

Secondly, food here is expensive. By meal planning I can buy what we need, not just random items that may or may not get thrown into something else. I realized we would have things we would eat regularly, and the things that seemed like a good idea at the time would either sit on a shelf, or die in the fridge. By meal planning I can buy what I know we’ll use and that’s it. Because the mission pays for our food as a small stipend, we want to be as effective as possible with how we spend that money. There’s always room for improvement, and I’m always looking at how we can not only eat healthier, but also cheaper. Meal planning has been a huge help in this department.

How do I do it?

I try to keep things pretty simple. I actually meal plan a month at a time, rather than weekly. This just works better for me because a week here can get busy and then I realize that I haven’t done it and things all fall apart. By taking about an hour once a month I can plan the whole month and its all ready to go.

I start by using a blank calendar page. Computer programs like Publisher have blank templates that you can use, or you could just make a simple table with enough boxes for 5 weeks and print it off. The one I use right now is actually a little calendar notepad thingie that I found in a dollar store. No dates, just days of the week.

I start by writing in the dates. After that I make little notes about anything special, like days where I know we’ll have visitors. This is important for me because when we have people in I have to cook a higher quantity of food, and I need to plan for lunches which is something I don’t typically do because we just eat leftovers or scrounge for something else. I also cook differently when we have people in. I learned several years ago that while I might want to cook something special, it’s often more of a time suck, and our days are already full with hosting duties. Keeping things simple during those times means it’s less meal prep time for me, I have more energy and the time I’m not using for cooking is time I can actually spend with our guests. Also, by keeping meals simple there are opportunities for people to help me out in the kitchen, which provides more time to connect.

After I note all that stuff I write in three things each week: Ryan Cooks, Leftovers and Chris Cooks.

Yep. The guys each cook one night per week. This wasn’t something I asked or demanded. When things started getting busier Chris asked if he cook take one night of cooking for me, and I said yes. I don’t care what he cooks, I just love that he does it. Usually it’s something simple like baked potatoes. But the important thing is that I don’t have to do it. When Ryan came we found out that he enjoys cooking and he offered to take one night per week. Ryan does Tuesdays and Chris does Fridays.

Leftovers…

Yes, I actually schedule a leftover night each Wednesday. We started to realize we were throwing out too much food because we weren’t eating it all. Aside from cutting down on how much I was cooking, I decided to add a leftover night like I had seen on organizing blog. Because Thursday is market day, we do leftover night on Wednesday. This helps us clean out the fridge and then I can see what we really need as far as produce, etc. Sometimes there aren’t many leftovers in the fridge, so occasionally I have to come up with a quick dinner idea in its place, but I’m okay with that. This morning, for example, I looked in the fridge to take stock, and while there are some leftovers, there aren’t enough to make a meal for 5 so I’m going to whip something else up – but I’ll be using up a bunch of the veggies in the crisper before they go bad to do it. I also know that we’ll eat up the leftovers that are there in the next two days just by feeding the kids lunch.

So, when all of those things are added in I only have to plan four dinners per week. On the side of my fridge I keep a list of all the meals that we enjoy eating so I don’t stagnate and just cook the same things over and over. A couple months ago I went through my cookbook that I have where I can add recipes in. It’s a just a photo album divided into sections. I took out anything that I a) knew I hadn’t ever made, or hadn’t made in a very long time, probably because it wasn’t a hit; and b) anything that I knew I would have trouble making here either because of time investment, ingredients, or because someone in our family just doesn’t like it. No sense in keeping something I’m not going to use when something I will use could be in that space. I made sure all my recipes were laminated and organized. Things had gotten a bit crazy because I just kept printing things and shoving them in the front cover. After I cleaned up the book, I updated the fridge list.

On my list things are divided into sections by the meat involved. Things that need ground beef go under one section, regular beef under another. Chicken dishes with rice are in one section and all other chicken dishes in another. Pasta, fish, soups and other ethnic or veggie based dishes in their own categories.

When I plan meals I like to spread things out and try to do chicken once a week, some type of beef another night, and even aim for a meat free night when I can. On a meat free night I might make soup and bread or something bean based like rice, beans and tortillas. Or it might be grilled cheese!

Once I have everything done on my paper version, I transfer it to the white board calendar stuck on my fridge. This way it’s out where everyone can see it, and I can change anything that needs to be changed if needed.

For planning purposes I also have a white board on the other side of our fridge that I took a permanent marker to. I divided it in half with a simple line, and on one side at the top I wrote “Market” and on the other “Store”. Now, I can look at the coming week and write down the things we need to buy. If it’s fresh stuff, grains, milk etc it goes on the “market” side. Other things that we need to get from the store go, you guessed it, on the “store” side! With three adults cooking through the week and people coming and going I got tired of forgetting things on my list when I went to shop, so I put the board up and the house rule is that if you know it needs to be replaced, either because it’s running low or it’s completely out – it goes on the list. It’s helped so much! We were having some magnet issues in the past couple weeks and I was getting annoyed because it wasn’t staying where I had put it. I was feeling out of sorts and unorganized so yesterday I did something about it and life is all better again!

I do want to mention that I like to keep a regular stock of what I would call “pantry essentials” on hand. For me it includes things like all my regular baking supplies, tomato paste (pasta sauce, pizza sauce etc), basic condiments, coffee, a couple different kinds of pasta noodles, oil, vinegar, and spices. Again, because going to get groceries is at least a 20 minute drive, and somethings aren’t available in our area, I stock up. For example, if I know I need flour, which comes in small 5lb bags, I’ll buy two – one to refill the plastic container in the kitchen and one to refill. I hate it when I feel like cooking or baking something and then run out of an ingredient half way, so I try to avoid that because I can’t just run out to get what I need to finish up. I do go through periods where I realize we have certain things piling up, like I did last week, so I then make an effort to use those things. For example, I had two and a half bags of oatmeal, and decided to make granola. Typically I wouldn’t have used that much oatmeal to make a batch of granola, but when I started I realized I was out of oat flour, so I whipped one and a half bags up in the blender to make my oat flour. All good!

The other reason I keep certain things on hand is because I want to be able to whip up a quick meal if we end up having company. As I mentioned, I cook differently when we have visitors. I pre-portion things like chicken and beef, so when we have company of maybe two extra people I might decide against chicken because for us right now a pre-portioned bag is 8 pieces (4 thighs, 4 drums) and 16 pieces of chicken is way too much chicken for 7 people! In that situation I might decided to make a pot of spaghetti with salad. We always have stuff for salad on hand, and I usually try to keep the makings for spaghetti on hand too. It’s just an easy meal that I can do on the fly. By having certain things on hand I can be ready for something spontaneous in a place where most things require a lot of planning and work.

I want to say something else about meal planning, and that’s the fact that it helps sort things out when you have a pick eater. In our house I go by the same rule that I grew up with, which was that you ate what was put before you. My mom tried to account for certain things, like my brothers hate of certain veggies, but for the most part we ate what was before us, even if we didn’t love it. I want to raise our kids with the mindset of trying something before you decide if you don’t like it, and to be polite when someone else prepares a meal for you. I don’t force them to eat things they don’t like other than taking a couple bits to be sure they don’t like it. Olivia used to be less picky than she is now, so typically I make her take a bite or two then leave it. Sometimes she ends up liking something that she thought looked gross, and other times she doesn’t. Chris is my really picky eater. He would live on meat and potatoes in any form if he could. When we first got married he wouldn’t hardly touch most veggies. How does a person meal plan for that???

Well, I remember that Chris is one person in our family. While I like to cook things that he likes to eat, I also try to balance that out with what the rest of us like. And, I make balanced meals. Many nights we have salad with whatever main dish we have. Usually I make up a big bowl of salad and we eat that until it’s gone. While I know Chris doesn’t like cooked veggies, it doesn’t mean that I avoid them. I figure he’s an adult and he knows how to use a fork, so he can pick them out, and he does. When I’ve expressed my frustration with trying to cook for him he’s (thankfully!) told me to not worry too much about it and just let him pick things out. So I don’t and he does. I’m proud of Chris too, because while he never used to eat salad when we first got married, he does regularly now. And while he only used to eat one kind of dressing on it, he eats a whole bunch of different things now.

My point is that meal planning allows you to account for your family’s preferences. If you know that one of your kids just wont eggs in most forms (like Olivia) then you can account for that. O had some bad experiences with getting sick after eating scrambled eggs, which were a staple for her when she was small. Now she hardly ever eats them. But, we’ve made her try other kinds and she found she loves hard boiled eggs and poached eggs. If I’m making breakfast and it involves eggs, unless I can plunk a boiled or poached egg in front of her, I don’t bother cooking eggs for her and just make sure she gets a piece of toast and something to give her some protein, but she’s only getting that because I’m making toast and other stuff for everyone else, not because I’m making a special meal for her. I used to worry more about what my kids ate, but then started paying attention to their food choices. Alex eats almost anything, and loves most veggies and fruits. Olivia might not love eggs, but she eats a variety of meat and will ask for salad. I think when the choices are healthy on a regular basis most kids will choose healthy foods in the balance that their bodies need.

I think we also need to be knowledgeable about what’s in our food. This is an area where I need to put more time in, but I’ve realized that while I might think about certain vitamins being in veggies, for example, I don’t think about the fact that some have calcium. My brain thinks dairy = calcium, so I used to worry when Olivia didn’t want to drink much milk. Then I realized that our water has a high calcium level, and she drinks lots of water, and she likes some of the veggies that have calcium in them as well as things like cheese and yogurt.

Now that I’ve been meal planning for several years I’m finding that rather than focusing on how to figure out what we’re going to eat, I can spend more time and attention on finding healthier or homemade options for things. Often people ask us what foods we miss from back home, and our typical answer is “nothing”. There might be something that a specific restaurant makes that we love, but for the most part I’ve figured out how to make the things that we did miss. I missed having tortillas, so I learned how to make them. And you know what? Even when we do have access to tortillas and they aren’t too expensive, I don’t buy them because mine taste better. I like knowing what is in our food, and I like making things from scratch. Recently I had people bring in canning jars and the few supplies that I’d need so I could do things like can sugar free mango jam when we had lots of mangoes, or canned tomatoes when tomatoes were in season. I loved being able to open one of my jars rather than a processed one when I’m cooking.

I hope this is helpful in some way. When it comes to meal planning you really need to find what works for you and your family. Some people need and want to plan every meal of the day. I don’t, so I don’t do it. Some people like computerized versions. I’ve tried several options and I keep going back to my paper and dry board version. Some people like to do a week at a time. I don’t want to have to do it that often, so I don’t. It has to work for you. And, it might take a while of trying things out to develop your system. Mine has literally taken years, but now we all rely on it. If things have been busy and I haven’t updated the plan yet I feel confused and unorganized and Chris often notices and says something about me not having updated the meal board yet. I realized that he likes to know what’s coming, and that makes me happy :) I like that I don’t have to think and can just look at the board that morning and know what needs to come out of the freezer or what other prep needs to be done. I don’t fee frazzled.

Question: Do you meal plan? If so, what works for you and what doesn’t. How does it affect things like your shopping and budgeting? 

~Leslie

Granola

I want to apologize to all of you! When I wrote my Better Breakfasts post and referred to the granola and was fielding questions about it I seriously thought I had posted the recipe on the blog somewhere a while back, so I was telling you to check it out. And you couldn’t find it. Because if it is there, it’s certainly not showing up. I’m pretty sure it’s not there and that what my mind was telling and what is reality are two very different things.

So, without further ado, this is the granola recipe I use.

**Edited to add: I forgot to put the note in about the oat flour after the recipe. It’s there now.

Granloa

In a large mixing bowl combine:

2 c oat flour*
6 c rolled oats
1 c brown sugar
1 c wheat germ
1/3 c flax seed (if I have it)
1 Tbsp cinnamon

In another bowl mix together:

1/2 c water
1 c oil
1 c honey
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt

*To make oat flour I just take a container of oats and run it through my KitchenAid hand blender chopper attachment, which basically functions like a mini food processor. I’ll do a whole container and keep it in my baking cupboard so it’s ready to go. It’s a great add in or substitution in bread or pancakes too!

I whisk my wet ingredients to mix them well. Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix until everything is moistened. Spread evenly onto two cookie sheets. Bake at 350F for about 20-25 minutes. You may want to take out the pan and stir up the granola a bit about 2/3 of the way through the cooking time. You want it to start turning golden brown and not be mushy to the touch. Take it out and let it cool. It will be slightly soft, but hardens up as it cools. Cool completely and transfer to an air tight container.

It’s really easy! I used Henry, my new KitchenAid mixer the last time I made this and it was so simple. Our kids love this not only for breakfast, but also to snack on. I got the original recipe from the More With Less Cookbook that I’ve talked about on here. In there it’s called “Simple Granola” but I have adapted it quite a bit.

Enjoy!

~Leslie

Summer Food Series Wrap Up

I hope you enjoyed our Summer Food Series. Again, it’s another little window into our family and our life in Haiti. I hope it’s given you some new ideas and for those of you that keep seeing my blurbs on facebook about some of these things, you now have the recipes and I don’t have to write them out and email them to you! :)

For a quick reference, here are links to all of the posts from the last month in one handy list for you!

Part 1: Lemonade
Part 2: Pizza Buns
Part 3: Salad Dressing
Part 4: Coleslaw and Slaw Dogs
Part 5: Granola
Part 6: Lasagna Rolls
Part 7: Breakfast Cookies
Part 8: Banana Shakes
Part 9: Sloppy Joe’s
Part 10: Breakfast Muffins
Part 11: Mac & Cheese – Our Favorite Version
Part 12: Baked French Toast
Part 13: Creamy Pepper Dip
Part 14: Fish Tacos

If you have questions about any of the recipes above please let me know. And, if you try them and tweak them let us know what you did in the comments of that recipe so others can see and use your info.

Thanks for taking the food journey with us!

~Leslie

Summer Food Series: Part 14

I’ve saved the best for last, because I love you all like that. This is by far one of our new family favorites.

Drumroll please…

FISH TACOS!!!

Chris’ Mum taught me how to make amazing fried fish years ago, and I’ve been making it for Chris ever since. It’s his favorite meal. And, living right on the beach means we have access to fresh fish. Our favorite is by far Mahi Mahi, or Dorad as they call it in Haiti. There are a few fishermen that know they should come by our house when they’ve caught a Mahi Mahi before they try selling it anywhere else. We can buy fish off the beach for about $2 US/lb. Because Haiti has a “fish season” we’ll stock up when we can and freeze fish for later enjoyment. The perk of buying it off the beach is that the price includes cleaning and cutting, so I don’t have to do much prep work, especially if Yonese is working when they come by. She makes sure the fisherman is cutting it up properly and will de-bone it for me before we freeze it.

This recipe has a few parts to it, so I’ll do the fried fish part first, then tell you how we put it all together.

Mum Rolling’s Fried Fish

Fish, of your preference (except salmon), filleted and cut into 4×4″ pieces (you can also do sticks if you want)
Lemon juice
2-3 c flour
2-3 tsp seasoning salt
2-3 eggs
2-3 tbsp water
Bread crumbs
Oil for frying

1. Prepare fish and lay in a dish or plastic container with an airtight lid. You can layer the fish to fit it all in. Pour in enough lemon juice to generously coat the bottom layer of fish. Close the container and let rest for several hours, turning it periodically to soak all fish.

2. Heat about 1 inch of oil in a frying pan on medium-high heat. You don’t want it too hot or you’ll burn the outside before the inside is cooked.

3. In a gallon sized Ziploc bag mix your flour and seasoning salt. I keep any extra coating in the freezer for future batches, and just keep adding to it as needed. It’s not an exact science!

4. In a shallow dish scramble your eggs and water with a fork until well mixed.

5. In a shallow pan (I use a round cake pan) put about 1/2 inch of bread crumbs.

6. Now, you want to set your assembly line up. Working towards your stove you want your open container of fish, then your bag of flour/salt, your egg wash, and lastly the bread crumbs.

7. Take a piece or two of fish and shake them in the flour until completely coated. Transfer to the egg wash, one piece at a time, and thoroughly coat the piece of fish. Now place the piece in the bread crumbs and shake the container side to side to coat one side, then flip and repeat until the entire piece is coated in crumbs. Place in hot oil and cook for about 4 minutes per side, depending on how thick your pieces are. Remove from oil and place in an oven safe dish lined with paper towel to drain. Keep cooked fish in a warm oven. Cook all of your fish. Unless you want sushi. Then don’t cook it all, but also don’t dip it in eggs. That would be bad.

Now onto the TACOS! I have to tell you… The first time I made this Chris came in the house and said, “Are you making fish?!?” When I told him I was making fish tacos he feigned enthusiasm. Then we sat down to dinner, and it was amazing. He still likes fried fish better than fish tacos, but he LOVES the fish tacos too and admits he was very skeptical to the point of thinking that I was ruining perfectly good fish by wanting to put it in a taco.

So, to make FISH TACOS I make a batch of fried fish, and a batch of tortillas, and a batch of the Creamy Pepper Dip from earlier this week. I shred up lettuce (you could also use green cabbage), and then we sit down and gorge ourselves. Because it’s so delicious you can’t stop. I put a piece of fish on the tortilla and cut it up a bit with my fork. Then a small handful of lettuce and a couple of spoonfuls of the Creamy Pepper Dip. (Really, the taco is just a vessel for the dip) Roll and eat.

If you like fish and spicy and delicious, you NEED to try this. We’ve had friends over and weeks later they were still talking about the fish tacos (Hi!!!!!). I’ve had people ask when they were going to get to come over for fish tacos because they’ve heard how amazing these were. And, Chris, who never updates his facebook status, actually wrote about the fish tacos. It’s one of those things where a few things that are delicious in their own right crash together and become amazing.

Go eat some tacos!! You can thank me later.

~Leslie