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Misty Schutt

The Ripple Effect: How Packing A Lunch Can Change Your Life

Packed Lunches

This simple New Year’s resolution will help you save money, decrease your household’s food waste, and improve your health. Here are four tips to make it easy.

It is that magical time again when many of us make promises for the upcoming year that 8 percent of us will keep. If you are among the millions of Earthlings who have made New Year’s resolutions there is high probability your goals involve money and health. I’m with you, these issues have been in my resolution repertoire since 1996.

I work in an office. I sit at a desk 8 hours a day. I arrange and organize and account for other people’s time and money. At work I am highly organized and disciplined. At home I am quite a bit less so.  Probably because for the last 8 hours I have been organized and disciplined for other people and when I’m home I feel like being in sweat pants on the sofa munching whatever I grabbed on my way through with a glass or three of wine.

Like many professional workplaces mine is surrounded by restaurants and fast food eateries. In my neck of the woods a basic lunch costing between $8 – 10. Expensive, yes, but I’ve willingly put the hassle of lunch into the hands of the food industry. While there are healthier options to choose from – salads, wraps, spanakopita – the chances of me making one are pretty slim, primarily because anything eaten too often looses it sparkle. Even gravy French fries. And especially salad.

So naturally weight is an issue. Sitting for eight hours a day is an issue. Irresponsible culinary decision-making: issue. An absurd approach would be trying to fix these issues by making resolutions on New Year’s, which until recently was exactly my process: penning a long list of my shortcomings and crossing my fingers that this would be the year. Lose some weight. Eat healthier. Clean out the frig every once in a while. Failure was inevitable but at least I was in good company.

Because I’ve reached that point in my forties when I accept the fact that sometimes success is achieved by lowering expectations, last year I decided to ditch the list and make a single resolution. One. My idea felt sensibly unambitious: I resolved to save a few dollars by packing my lunch three times a week. Just that. No long-term commitments or cancellation fees.

A simple idea, perhaps superfluously fatalistic, but the result was that I learned to be a better cook, saved fifteen hundred dollars, and accidentally lost 30 pounds.

It was classic ripple effect. After a grim start involving hastily assembled peanut butter sandwiches in predawn hours it occurred to me that a wiser approach might be to pack leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. This, however, necessitated preparation of an actual ‘previous night’s dinner’. That required the forethought and planning of – dare I say it – a grocery list. Grocery lists are the result of a menu, which are best developed by familial consensus following discussion and tense negotiations. In a heartbeat my little resolution blossomed into an array of unanticipated life improvements. We implemented a family meal plan, shopped for grocery using a list like responsible adults, and consumed high quality food on a more regular basis. Preparing dinner with The Husband each night was not the additional after-work chore I thought it might be, but was instead a creative and relaxing outlet after a long day at the office. We used up more of the food we bought and saw our household food waste decrease dramatically. A year later we are self-proclaimed foodies and loyal card-carrying members of the packed lunch club.

Maybe the key to New Year’s Resolution-keeping is not tackling all of our shortcomings in one fell swoop, but making one tiny change and riding the ripples.

Every good meal deserves to be photographed (is that not the very purpose of Instagram?), thus I am posting pictures and descriptions of six weeks worth of my daily lunches below. My hope is that these ideas inspire your own meal planning and promote confidence in would-be dinner makers and lunch packers. Home made meals aren’t always glamorous or gourmet, but they are always better than what you get from a fast food takeout window. Happy home-cooked lunching this new year!

4 Tips for Lunch-packing Success

  1. Make a Realistic Menu. Start with a workable meal plan based on foods your family already enjoys and you can easily handle in the kitchen. When you need ideas and inspiration check out the growing list of real-world lunches below and work backward to the dinners that made many of them possible. Or check out FoodTube, my favorite internet rabbit hole, where I’ve learned to cook new and wonderful things.
  1. Pack Lunch First. Do not wait to see if there will be leftovers, set aside tomorrow’s lunch portion before sitting down at the dinner table.
  1. Prep Food in Advance. I promise you will not feel like washing and chopping food on a work morning or after a long day at the office, so lend your future self a hand by shopping on the weekend and prepping as much food as possible as soon as you get it home. Grill, cut, and freeze pre-measured servings of protein over the weekend to speed up the dinner-making process; do not permit any raw vegetable to enter your crisper without washing and cutting it first.
  1. Make it Tasty! Totally true fact: Once I packed a lunch I knew I would not eat because I didn’t care for the ingredients to begin with. Not sure why this seemed like a good idea, maybe I thought my preferences would magically change under the orange glow of workplace fluorescents? They didn’t.  If you experimented with dinner last night and did not care for the outcome, do not derail your resolution by packing it for lunch. Pack the lunch you cannot wait to eat!

“Avid Gardner”

Ever notice how squirrels stash away nuts in the fall in underground emergency stockpiles? Yeah, I get that sentiment. Every spring. I morph into an avid gardner right around the first of February when snow-fatigue sets in.

Which is why my seed mail orders are arriving this week. Each delivery is like a little party to celebrate spring. A surprise party, as I can never remember exactly what I ordered weeks ago. I’m super into heirloom varieties, apparently. Tomatoes in particular – it appears I love me some tomato seeds.

I oggle over each packet then place it in the box with my other seeds. The ones I got in the mail last year. As well as the year before. Plus the year before that. I have the spirit of a farmer except farmer’s seeds actually make it into the ground. This is not a problem as far as I’m concerned. In a zombie apocalypse I got this thing covered.

Thank goodness for our local farmers who get those seeds in the ground every spring:

Veggie Math

April is upon us, and that can only mean one thing: Time to sign up for your local CSA!

Features of a [perfectly normal] Fresh Egg

Oh backyard chicken eggs. They are so delicious! And so misunderstood. Most humans know eggs as a yellow rubber disk that comes on their favorite fast food breakfast sandwich and do not realize real eggs have…features.

If you’re thinking about selling or giving away backyard chicken eggs, here is a handy infographic to stick in the carton. It is designed to assure those who buy your eggs that everything is going to be ok. Trust me, you’re going to need it.

Check out my youtube video about why you shouldn’t be selling backyard chicken eggs in the first place.

To Parents of a Teen with a Psychological Illness:
4 Things You Need to Know Right Now

Not long enough ago I sat in the ER while a psychiatric resident checked the IV attached to my sixteen year old daughter’s arm and asked, ‘Why do you want to kill yourself, honey?”

The words are forever tattooed on the wall of my heart.

After endless worrying about her anxiety and self-destructive impulses, of watching her oscillate between the usual trials of adolescence and erratic emotional distress, my daughter was diagnosed last year with Borderline Personality Disorder, a psychological illness marked by unstable and turbulent emotions and impulsivity. On a personal level the diagnosis felt like an indictment of my parenting. Where did I go wrong? What did I do to raise this anxious child? At the same time it was a weight lifted; this thing she had battled for years was real. We finally had a name and a course for healing.

In the year since that night I have learned that developing a treatment plan for a psychological disorder is a complex endeavor, one that becomes thornier when the sufferer is a teenager. The rapidly changing bodies and hormones of any teenager can result in maddening behavior on occasion. Add to that a malfunction of a neuronal connection in the brain and the result is an emotional boomerang that can make the act of establishing a treatment plan feel like trying to hit a moving target while wearing a blindfold.

Like it or not – ready or not – parents quickly realize that the responsibility of getting all the pieces working together depends on us. Someone has to be the manager and organizer, appointment setter, records keeper, advocate, cheerleader, disciplinarian, and comforter. There is no training, no certificate of competency; one day we are the anxious parent of a deeply troubled teen and the next day we are a bold pioneer forging a path towards a family-focused mental health treatment plan.

Most days I feel ready for it, whatever the new it of the day may be. Occasionally I feel like pulling the comforter over my head and refusing to surface until the Jacksonville Jaguars win a Super Bowl.

In my quest to be the best caregiver to my daughter that I can be I have read articles and books that caution parents of psychologically distressed teenagers to “Take care of yourself!” and “Make sure your needs are being met!” But what does that even mean? Where are the how-to’s for that? The literature does not provide a lot in terms of specifics.

So, to parents like me who are living the complex reality of caring for a mentally ill teenager: let me share four things I have learned that have helped me keep my wits about me:

  1. Get Connected. It Changes Everything.

During the most difficult episodes of my daughter’s depression my instinct was to keep our painful family crisis a secret. Protecting her from cultural stigma was paramount. I felt guilty about pursuing anything that ‘distracted’ me from my primary responsibility: getting her well and keeping her safe. How could I even think about imbibing in a girl’s night out or writing on my goofy chicken blog at a time like this?

The side effect, of course, was that in the throes of crisis I felt very alone.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26% of Americans have experienced a mental health crisis of some form. That translates to a vast number of families who understand exactly what we are going through even while we subsist in silence. The fact is, sharing with those who have lived a similar experience can change the trajectory of our lives.

When I finally shared my situation with a select few, not only was I overwhelmed by the number of people who have gone through a similar crisis with their own child, or whose family has rallied around a niece or godson, I was unprepared for their intuitive guidance and eagerness to share professional referrals that set my family’s treatment plans on an accelerated path.

Success is all about who you know. Get connected. Get into a support community to help you crack the complex world of psychological treatment services. Seek out those who will applaud your successes and commiserate your setbacks.

As a parent, being reminded regularly that you are not alone is key to your own emotional health.

  1. Forgive Those Who Talk Stupid.

Recently an acquaintance visiting my home declared she had no clue how my daughter could feel depressed when she had everything a kid could ask for and if we stopped indulging her she might snap out of it.

Just as the outpouring of support from unexpected sources will leave you feeling awestruck, so may you feel defensive and raw from insensitive comments some people feel obligated to make. The truth is, sometimes even very caring people say really stupid things (err…myself included). In a social climate where myths about mental illness run rampant we must recognize that not everyone is prepared to bring well-drafted opinions and proper vocabulary to the table.

It is often the best policy to simply overlook stupidity and be on our way. On the other hand, we are not obligated to succumb to flawed cultural stigma. If someone makes a comment that is clearly infused with vice we can advocate for our teenager by calmly stating the facts and establishing ground rules. Knowing in advance what to say is helpful. I have a set response for these rare occasions. It goes something like this:

“Asking a person with a psychological illness to snap out of the chemical imbalance in her brain is like expecting a Type 1 Diabetic to snap out of her defective pancreas. We have a team of brain experts developing a plan for our family and we are not really in the market for an uninformed prognosis.”

This approach nearly always results in one of two outcomes – a profuse apology or an abrupt change of subject. Both are fine by me. My home is my sacred place and there are ground rules to follow.

Forgiveness is an essential skill for parents caring for teenagers with mental illness. It burns up less energy than harboring a grudge and I have learned to apply it liberally. However, relationships involving humans who are persistently insensitive about my daughter’s mental health are ones I permit to fade. For the wellbeing of our family it is essential to forgive stupidity and, when necessary, know when to move on.

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  1. Intentionally Seek Laughter.

Listen, fellow parent who is caring for a teenager with psychological illness, I totally get it: you probably have never felt less like laughing than you do at this moment. But I promise you this: you have never needed laughter more than you do right now.

Laughter can boost our mood, strengthen our immune system, and shift our perspective. Best of all, laughter is contagious. Right now you probably do not feel like introducing your family to new activities that feel frivolous but, dear parent, here is the thing: if you embrace these activities with gusto, eventually your teenager will follow suit. This is the nature of laughter.

Over the past year laughter has served as a marker of significant progress in our daughter’s treatment. My husband and I knew we had found the right therapist for her the moment we heard them erupt into laughter in the next room. And during a particularly dark period of adjustment we attended Alton Brown’s cooking show with her reluctantly in tow, and when the show opened with sock puppets singing fart jokes I snuck a peek at her out of the corner of my eye expecting the worst. I caught her guffawing with her head thrown back and looking for all the world like a happy, carefree teenager. Her joy took my breath away and I spent the next two hours clandestinely wiping happy tears – and the corresponding snot – on my shirtsleeve. It was a cooking show for peat’s sake; I had not thought to bring Kleenex.

And once in a family therapy session the counselor asked the teenagers in the room what their parents did when they got stressed out. My daughter’s hand shot into the air and I searched frantically for a place to hide. “I always know when my mom is stressed because I find her in the hen yard talking to our chickens.” The room erupted into laughter and the discussion was hopelessly sidetracked. At the end of the session I apologized to our counselor for the disruption but she assured me that laughter was an excellent use of therapy time.

Laughter is a powerful antidote to stress and pain. It unites us and creates a joyful memory map that can be revisited during times of distress. Pursue laughter as relentlessly as you seek talk therapy and psychiatric medications. Let it bring your family together and ease the sting of darker times. Intentionally introduce moments into your family’s day that are infused with buoyancy and levity and see what happens.

Laughter is potent medicine. Even in the form of farting sock puppets.

  1. Reclaim Your Routine.

After my daughter was released from the hospital there was a period of weeks when my husband and I roamed the house like strangers in a foreign land. We adjusted awkwardly to new therapy strategies and tag-teamed our way through daily medical appointments. Hobbies were pushed into dark corners to gather dust.

But my husband faithfully stuck to a routine he developed when our daughter started high school: he had a strong conviction that it should be him who cooked a homemade breakfast for her every morning. Providing his child with delicious and nourishing food was a privilege and responsibility he refused to relinquish to anyone, and certainly not to the public school system. So when she returned from the hospital he picked back up right where he left off. Morning after morning he cooked her breakfast. Even on days when she was too anxious to move. Even when the plate on the stand by her bed was repeatedly left untouched. He never complained. And he never gave up.

One morning she lifted herself up out of bed on her own accord and wandered into the kitchen. “Mmmm,” she said, “it smells good out here. Like breakfast.”

He just smiled. And kept right on cooking.

Routines are a powerful counter-force against the chaos and unpredictability of this disease. Adjusting as a family following a mental health crisis is a confusing undertaking. It is easy to let routines slide. Household chores, Friday pizza night, and yoga on Tuesdays, all of that is important. Predictable family rhythms give our teenager a sense of security. They allow her to feel in control. She knows what comes next and what is expected of her.

This stands true for parents. Routines provide us with a sense of comfort and of purpose. So reclaim your routines. And don’t skip the ones that bring you joy.

Not long ago my daughter asked me why I do not write on my blog anymore. I told her I had other important things going on. She said, “But it made you happy.”

So, dear friends, this is me practicing the healing power of routine. I have dug the camera out of the closet and revived my Saturday morning ritual of documenting the sassy centerfolds in my hen yard. I have dusted off this blog and started a list of topics on which to opine.

Getting back into the swing of things feels very, very good.

Living with our teenager’s mental illness can be daunting. Equally important as developing a treatment plan for our child is the need to take care of ourselves. This means being surrounded by people who understand our struggle and forgiving those who say insensitive things. It means seeking joyful experiences even in the darkest times and recognizing the power of our routines. Given the choice we would never have picked this path for our child or ourselves, but as parents we are fine-tuned for having walked it. We see the tiny steps forward that might otherwise go unnoticed. Even in the face of this persistent foe we have become parents capable of believing life is good and the future is bright.

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My Lucky Tummy

Early Thursday I hurried into work, my mind on the ten things to be done by noon, and stopped short at the bulletin board between the elevator and the men’s room. “My Lucky Tummy” proclaimed a poster hanging there, letters scrawled across the fat belly of a spring robin. “1,000s of refugees & immigrants call Syracuse home. Many come from places where fast, easy food doesn’t rule. Food takes time. Food takes tradition & care. WE WANT THAT FOOD.”

I frowned at my lemon loaf and grande Americano. I, too, wanted that food.

Advance tickets for this international cuisine were $20. The menu was a secret until the doors opened to the first wave of diners at the Alibrandi Center. All we knew is that Burma, Cuba, Somalia, Thailand, and Iraqi dishes would be featured and each dish would contain no more than 5 ingredients. Most importantly, most of those ingredients would come from local, family owned markets (a fact that grew exponentially significant as we consumed dishes made from, among other things, camel meat).

The lady at the door shared protocol: grab a plate and join the throng. My Lucky Tummy is not a sit-down affair. Mingling is the point, particularly with the cooks. The Chef from Burma watched closely my reaction as I shoveled into a pile of noodles, and broke into a wide grin when I approximated ‘Hmmm! Delicious!’ straight through my mouthful. And so it was at each table, food-as-common-denominator, a tie that shrinks the world.

What we ate:

  • Thin Baw Thi Athoke from Burma, made from green papaya, prawn, peanut, and chili
  • Quimbombo from Cuba, made from okra, beef, plantain, tomato, and cumin
  • Sambusa from Solalia, made from camel, potato, and piri piri
  • Kao Pad Gai Gra Pow from Thailand, made from holy basil fried rice, chicken, and egg
  • Kunefe from Iraq, made from broken noodles, pistachio, and sweet cheese

Somalia     PeekaBoo

Camel

Griffin     Cross

The cash bar featured Griffin Hill Farm Brewery beer, a Saison brew out of Onondaga made not from water but from maple sap. Cheeky. The Husband, himself a home brewer, declared it delicious.

And what of these family-run food markets that cater to our local refugee and New American communities, supplying the ingredients that make My Lucky Tummy’s international cuisine possible? These are the inconspicuous heroes, proving there is still much to discover on the Northside of Syracuse.

A new collection of international dishes will be presented when My Lucky Tummy pops up again at a TBD place and time. In keeping with the tradition of surprises, only tantalizing tidbits will be gleaned about future events. Wherever it is, see you there.

Connect with My Lucky Tummy on Facebook and on the web.

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Thailand

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Yesterday was lambing day at Meadowood Farm, an annual invitation to the community-at-large to shower love upon  this spring’s strapping newborns. Aside from baby chicks – my unyielding bias towards them is widely known – baby lambs are quite possibly earth’s cutest invention. Continue Reading