A Minimalist Bridal Registry: Tools for a Lifetime of Fabulous Food

minimalist bridal registryImage by JD Hancock

I don’t believe in owning a lot, but I do believe in owning some good kitchen tools. Being able to cook for yourself is, in my opinion, the most important step in self-sufficiency. It will save you money, it’s good for the planet, it’s good for your health, and will provide a lifetime of delight and satisfaction. Having a kitchen stocked with quality tools will make cooking that much easier and more enjoyable.

In my last post on creating a minimalist bridal registry, I suggested some of guiding principles when putting together a registry:

  • Look for durable items.
  • Look for classic styles that won’t quickly go out of date.
  • Avoid plastic.
  • Avoid items that only serve one purpose.

I also offered a list of common kitchen items I don’t really recommend. Today, I’m diving into the top kitchen items I do recommend, with suggestions for quality brands I’ve used and loved. (Disclaimer: contains affiliate links).

I explained in my last post that I regretted most of the items I registered for nine years ago. If I could go back and register all over again (and if my guests weren’t all frugal Mennonites — *ahem*), here are the items I would choose. They are what I use on a daily basis now, as a seasoned home cook, and I love them all (and hope to use them for many years to come).

Since I am trying to be a good steward of the planet, and aim for a minimalist lifestyle as much as possible, these items follow a certain set of criteria that are important to me:

  • They are made to last a long time, so you’re not constantly throwing things out and replacing them. Often, they are much more expensive than conventional options, but should save you money in the long run.
  • They are as multi-functional as possible, enabling you to keep the number of items to a minimum (For example, I include a toaster oven, which can do the job of both a toaster and a microwave, eliminating the need for either). This reduces clutter and keeps things simpler.
  • They are generally the least toxic and most energy-efficient options I know of.

Cooking and Prep

Minimalist Bridal Registry: the 3 knives you need

Knives: Don’t be fooled into thinking you need a whole big set of knives. I have found that with three good knives, you can do just about anything.

Chef’s Knife. You guys: getting a proper chef’s knife changed my life.  I’m listing this first because it is, in my opinion, the most valuable and important kitchen tool.  I got a Wusthof 8-inch Chef’s knife two Christmases ago and will never use anything else. Nothing else compares in terms of versatility, balance, control, blade sharpness, and (according to Amazon reviews) longevity. I highly recommend that every home cook get the best chef’s knife they can afford.

While I used to use a variety of cheap knives every day, I now use this one for virtually everything. Chopping, mincing, slicing, you name it. Every single day. I still have my old knives but never touch them. For me, this knife worth the extra cost because you’ll never need another knife. I also prefer to use it over fancy chopping and slicing gadgets. It’s faster and tidier.

It’s nice to have a good knife sharpener to maintain it. I have this one, as recommended by a professional chef.

Paring Knife.  Even though I do almost everything with my chef’s knife, I occasionally need a small knife for things like trimming and coring fruits and vegetables. I currently just have a cheapo and it does the job; eventually I would like to get a Wusthof.

Bread Knife. Another essential. I think brand and quality are less important with this one (I just have a department store brand), but you still want something that will last (like this J.A. Henckels Stainless-Steel Bread Knife.)

Cutting Board. I recommend wood or bamboo — it’s gentle on your expensive knives; and more hygienic, durable, and eco-friendly than plastic. Although one lightweight, flexible plastic cutting board in addition to the bamboo one can come in handy when you need to whip out an extra one.

Minimalist Bridal Registry: pans

Cast Iron Skillet. I can’t say enough about my 12-inch Lodge cast iron skillet. It’s inexpensive. It’s heavy-duty. It will last you the rest of your life — you might even be able to pass it on to your children. You can use steel utensils in it. It’s safe (unlike Teflon pans). It’s multi-purpose — wonderful for frying, sauteing, braising, grilling, you name it. I use mine every single day, for almost every meal.

It takes some getting used to, learning how to use and care for cast iron (e.g. you never wash with soap, to preserve the seasoning); but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never go back. You also have to get used to the weight.

I recommend getting two — a 12-inch and a 10-inch.

Stainless Steel Saute Pan with Lid. In addition to my cast iron, this versatile pan with a lid gets near-daily use, especially for sauces.

Pot Set. Surprisingly, I have no opinion here. I had a fairy cheap set for the first 8 years or so and found it fine.

Surgical Huck Towels. Forget traditional dish towels. Surgical huck towels are super-absorbent, durable, and lint-free. They dry quickly, which means they don’t get stinky. They dry glass without streaking. You can use them in lieu of oven mitts or pot holders — just keep them neatly folded a few times and tucked into your apron strings. I love them.

I recommend choosing a colour besides white, so the stains don’t show so fast. (I have the orange.)

Toaster Oven. I use my toaster oven for SO MUCH: for reheating leftovers (instead of a microwave); for toasting bread (anything from standard sliced bread to baguettes); and for baking small items like cheesecakes and pies (this uses much less energy than your oven). I highly, highly recommend this item. I’m sure they’re all great, though I own the Oster convection toaster oven.

Blender or Food Processor. I still haven’t found the One Food Processor to Rule Them All. I started out with a cheap Costco blender. I do not recommend it. If I had to choose between a blender and food processor, I’d choose the latter.

I own and love my Ninja Master Prep Professional – it’s super-versatile (it can function as a blender and food processor), it can blend anything, and works quickly. I use it for anything from smoothies to salsa to my date and nut balls. I can make my own peanut butter, and it will blend frozen banana chunks into a creamy, dairy-free ice cream. It’s very affordable, too. I just worry that the construction isn’t very sturdy and it won’t last long. I’ve had it for a couple of years without issue, but I’m noticing fissures in the containers which vexes me.

If I had the money, I’d buy a Vitamix. Apparently it’s the bee’s knees of blenders.

Basic Box Grater. I’ve used fancy food processors with grating and slicing discs; but unless I’m doing huge bulk amounts, I find a box grater (like this Norpro)  much more practical because it’s easy to clean and take up less space. Plus, something in the motor of my stupid Hamilton Beach food processor broke and I had to throw it in the garbage. Sometimes manual is just better.

Measuring Cups. Glass for liquid and stainless steel for dry ingredients. Please.

Silicone Brush. I use it for all kinds of things, but especially spreading fat (butter, lard, olive oil, coconut oil) onto bakeware. With this little tool, I avoid all cooking sprays. Aerosol cans (like Pam) are horrible for many reasons; and I’ve never found a good reusable spray-can (I’ve tried a few). I prefer solid fats anyway for health reasons, anyway.

Silicone Spoon. I love love love my silicone spoon, though of course a regular rubber spatula works (almost) just as well.

minimalist bridal registry: stainless steel utensils

Cooking Utensils. Growing up, my mom always kept a drawer bursting full with innumerable broken, half-melted plastic spatulas and utensils. I have since learned the value of a few quality items — I recommend one stainless steel whisk, ladle, serving spoon, slotted spoon, spaghetti server, tongs, and spatula. (Duplicates are nice, of course.) You can use stainless steel with my suggested pans (above) without worry. A few wooden spoons round this out nicely.

Vegetable Peeler. I haven’t found my peeler soul-mate, but I have used a lot of crappy ones, and they make life miserable. A good one is hard to find. I am happy with my newish KitchenAid peeler.

Large (Metal) Colander. For draining pasta, homemade stocks, etc.

Baking and Roasting

minimalist bridal registry: baking pans

Baking Stone. I got two of these Pampered Chef cookie sheets for Christmas two years ago and I am CRAZY about them. Nothing sticks to them. I bake crackers, cookies, buns, pizza, anything on these stones, and they bake beautifully and evenly. LOVE.

Glass and/or Ceramic Bakeware. For baking, you’ll likely need at least one of each: 9 X 13-inch pan; square 8 or 9-inch baking pan; 9-inch pie plate; and loaf pan. (I like to bake bread in bulk, so I actually have 8 pans).

Electric Mixer. A hand mixer is totally sufficient for whipping cream and mixing batters if you don’t have a stand mixer. It’s all I used for the first eight years, and I can’t say upgrading to a stand mixer has made that big a difference.

Metal Cake Pan and Muffin Tin(s). I prefer a springform cake pan (I have this one). My muffin tins have a nonstick coating, which i don’t love, but I usually use paper muffin cups.

*I haven’t found the ideal solution for rimmed baking pans (when baking something roll-y, like roasted chick peas). I currently use cheap nonstick baking sheets. I would someday like to own one of these Pampered Chef stoneware bar pans.

Serving, Eating and Storing

Corelle Dinnerware. This is one bridal registry item I don’t regret. Corelle dishes are affordable and incredibly durable — I still have almost every original piece from 9 years ago. I got the plain white (“Winter Frost“) set. Yes, it’s kind of boring. But it matches with everything, never goes out of style, and individual items are easily replaceable if broken — this style will never be discontinued. I can get funky napkins if I want to spiff things up.

Drinking Glasses and Stemware. I have nothing to say except choose sturdy over pretty. (Ideally, they’ll be both.)

Mason Jars. I use all different sizes of mason jars for storing all kinds of things, from dried beans in my pantry to homemade yogurt in my fridge. I can jams, tomatoes, and pickles in them. Mason jars are so versatile, I adore them (and they look cute, too!). It’s great to have a nice collection of every style and size, from half-pints to quarts. And I absolutely LOVE having the plastic caps (regular and wide-mouth sizes) for storage.

Minimialist Bridal Registry: storage containers

Plastic Dry Foods Storage Containers. It’s also handy to have some larger, plastic, rectangular storage containers for bulk dry foods. Buying in bulk can save money and decrease packaging waste. I like my Rubbermaid Modular containers for storing things like flour, rice, and sugar. They’re affordable, durable, and more space-efficient than mason jars.

Other Storage Containers. I always cook enough food at dinner to have leftovers for lunch. I have a variety of storage containers for that purpose. I personally love the Tupperware brand — it’s spendy, and you have to buy from a buy it from a consultant, but it lasts forever (with a lifetime guarantee). It also doesn’t contain BPA. I like to use glass containers, too, so that leftovers can go directly into the toaster oven to reheat.

 Well, I’m probably forgetting something, but these items come to mind as the most essential items.

Do you agree? What’s missing from my list, in your opinion?

One Year Later: Still Shampoo-Free (And now I have super-senses!)

still shampoo-free and loving it!

(If you’re reading this on the blog, you’ll notice that this is the same photo as my new profile picture. Sorry if that looks weird. I don’t have a lot of pictures of myself.)

Exactly a year ago, I shared my experiences and suggestions for going shampoo-free (or “no-poo,” as it’s often called on the Interwebz). I explained how I go about washing my hair (with a baking soda rinse, followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse), and how you might have better luck if you slowly wean yourself off of shampoo rather than make the switch cold-turkey.

That post has continued to be my most-read post of all time. (To be honest, that surprises me, because a lot of other people with way more successful blogs have already written about it, too.) I still even get regular comments on that post. It’s been pinned almost a thousand times. Turns out, there are a lot of people out there interested in ditching shampoo! To which I say: Woohoo! EAT IT, Proctor and Gamble! We don’t need your lousy products!!

Anyway, I am happy to report that a year later, I love the no-poo method more than ever! It just keeps getting better and better. No joke! I’m comfortable enough with it that I’m able to whip up my rinses without thinking about it, and I never have those weird off-days anymore (where my hair would randomly get waxy and limp for no apparent reason).

I love that I never have to buy shampoo (So frugal! So simple!). Instead, I buy one big jug of vinegar and a couple of boxes of baking soda (totalling about $5), and this will last me more than 6 months for my whole family.

Over this past year, I’ve discovered two new great things about going no-poo:

  • In the winter, I no longer have issues with static. I can’t explain this. But all my life, the dry air of winter has meant my pin-straight hair clinging to my face and driving me crazy unless I tie it up. The more I would touch it, the more electrical and crazy-making it would get. No longer. I don’t know why this is true, but I am loving this new quality.
  • In the summer, I no longer have issues with frizz. Although my hair is straight, I’ve always had to blow-dry my locks during the summer to prevent my flyaways from frizzing up and giving me a hair halo. Throughout my teen and early adult years, I would always follow my blow-dry with a flat-iron run-through as well, to keep everything smooth.

summer frizzies

(This photo of me is like a decade old but it’s the best example I have of what I’m talking about).

Again: this problem is no more. I can let my hair air-dry after a shower — even in hot, humid weather — and it sits perfectly tame and docile. (It’s not the prettiest if I do it this way, but it’s fine for at home and running errands. If I want it to look extra-nice for a date or something, I just blow-dry it.)

In the photo at the top of this post, all I’ve done is dry my hair with a hair-dryer (after washing with my usual baking soda and apple cider vinegar). No products, no flat-iron, no nothing.

And since I’ve eliminated everything with synthetic perfumes and fragrances from our home, I’ve discovered another interesting change: my sense of smell is enhanced a hundredfold.

Okay, so maybe not that much (a dozenfold?), but I have been downright astonished at the difference. I can perceive smells I would have never noticed at any point in my earlier life.

I’ve never had a particularly acute sense of smell, but that’s all different now. For example, I can identify my mom’s cooking by the smell of her dish soap on the food. From touching plates and utensils washed (and then rinsed) in her kitchen. It’s only the faintest smell, and not strong enough to be at all off-putting, but I can always notice, Ah — this came from my mom’s house.

I once walked into a friend’s house and asked, “Do you have a flowering plant in here?” They didn’t think so. It only took me a moment to sniff out a blossom on their little citrus tree that they didn’t know was there.

I could give you lots more examples but you get my point.

It might not be the most useful sense enhancement, but what alarms me is that I was robbed of this sense for all the years prior. Because we wanted our clothes and our bed linens and our bathrooms to smell pretty. It blows my mind that surrounding myself with artificial fragrances dulled my senses so dramatically for all those years. Now, I smell the way I was meant to smell. (Wait, that could be taken wrong . . . )

Anyhow. I just wanted to say that I’m still delighted with the no-poo method, and I hope you consider giving it a try if you haven’t already.

Here’s the original post on how to go shampoo-free, and another post offering additional tips.

*If you have any specific questions about going no-poo, consider reading the comments from my original post. Lots of good ideas there!*

Have you tried going no-poo? How did you like it? And am I the only one who has noticed sense-of-smell-enhancement since ditching fragrances??

Why I Don’t Miss Junk Mail (And How We Got Rid of It)

Why I Don't Miss Junk Mail (And why/how you can ditch it, too)

We got a new mail man last week.

I was alerted to this change when I noticed crap mail showing up in our mailbox. Store fliers, ads for phone and internet bundles, stuff like that. I was surprised to see it. We hadn’t received crap mail in over a year. The only things we ever get in the mail these days are government and personal correspondence (i.e. income tax stuff, wedding invitations, etc). In other words, we probably get 3-5 pieces of mail in our mailbox a week. The sudden influx — 3-5 pieces a day — was alarming.

By the third day, I knew I had to take action. I was quickly reminded why I’d decided to eliminate junk mail in the first place. Who wants all that useless paper piling up in their home? (Answer: not me).

Because I’ve done this before, I knew exactly what to do. I just wrote up a note and taped it to the inside of my mail box:

no more junk mail

Within two days, the junk mail stopped coming. Ahhhh. It feels good to have less paper piling up in our recycle box.

Simplifying your Mail

We stopped getting junk mail about a year and a half ago. I had purchased Tsh Oxenreider’s One Bite at at Time: 52 Projects for Making Life Simpler, and one of the projects involved reducing mail clutter. This included opting out of junk mail.

At first I was scared to cut my junk mail. I’d miss all the sales! How would I know where to find all the best deals in town?

But I decided to take the plunge, and have never, ever regretted it.

There are three major reasons to opt out of junk mail:

1. Because the paper waste is egregious. (Seriously: that mountain of paper delivered to your house every single week, just so you can see what’s on sale at a couple of interesting places? And then throw the whole pile out every week? In the so-called digital age?? Does that seem like a reasonable use of resources?)

2. Because paper clutter in the house can quickly get out of hand, increasing your stress load. (See my thoughts on minimalism).

3. Because fewer ads in your life can help you reduce the number of unnecessary purchases you make, by eliminating temptation.

I decided that these were all great reasons to opt out of junk mail.

First, I’ll go over why I’m glad we got rid of the junk mail; then I’ll go over how you can do it, too!

Why I Don’t Miss Junk Mail

1. The vast majority of fliers contain nothing of interest, and would go straight into the recycling anyway. These include stores that sell furniture, major appliances, tools, gadgets, etc. How many times in my life do I need to look at ads for refrigerators? Why would I need weekly fliers advertising these things?

2. The rest of the fliers tempt me with things I don’t really need.

 I’d rather not know about the new deals on smart phones or data plans. Often, when I do look at other peoples’ fliers, I suddenly feel like I need and want all kinds of things. Oooh, I would love a good mandolin for my kitchen. Hey, wouldn’t Lydia love some clothes for her doll? Oh, I could really use some accessories to update my wardrobe. Man, my phone is outdated. I avoid all this if I just avoid ads altogether.

If I’m not aware of new products or amazing reduced prices on old ones, I can’t want them.

 3. Grocery stores – i.e. the places I actually do shop — don’t really have sales on the things I want, anyway.

What I want is local, organic produce; pastured meat, eggs, and dairy; etc. That stuff simply isn’t available from most grocery stores, and if it was, would almost never be on sale. I’m trying to buy less and less from grocery stores, and trying instead to either grow my own food or buy it from farmer’s markets, local farmers, local butchers, etc. Even flour, I now get from a local farmer. We get our fair-trade sugar, cocoa, and coffee from Ten Thousand Villages.

So it doesn’t matter to me whether Cheerios are cheaper at FreshCo or at the Real Canadian Superstore. I don’t want them either way. Price matching isn’t something that concerns me. Grocery store fliers, therefore, don’t have much to offer me.

4. I also don’t use commercial shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste, disposable pads/tampons, toilet paper, laundry detergent, sunscreen, or other conventional hygiene products, so those sales are irrelevant, too.

 5. I’ve fallen in love with the reduced paper clutter and paper waste around the house. I love that we don’t have to organize and store stacks of paper fliers ever week. The only paper you’ll find in our recycling box, now, includes the occasional envelope, a few boxboard boxes, and some of Lydia’s old artwork. Simple.

6. If I ever do want to know what’s on sale at a given store, or if I’m interested in finding the best deal on a given item, the fliers are available online. (They’re a little more cumbersome to look through this way, but it’s okay for occasional use). Or I can just look at a friend’s fliers that week.

Ready to Get Rid of Junk Mail? Here’s How

The easiest and most effective step, in my experience, is to leave a note for your mail delivery person, as seen in the photo at the beginning of this post.  With this step, my mailman simply quit putting unaddressed admail in our mailbox. After a week or two I was able to take the sign down. (He’s still required, by law, to deliver anything with our address on it, though. See resources below to get your name and address taken off of other mailing lists.)

I also told the junk mail delivery person, when I ran into her one afternoon, that I no longer wanted the fliers. Done and done.

Here are a few other resources to help you out:

In Canada:

#1: Red Dot Campaign – A good place to start. This site provides information on why and how to eliminate junk mail.

#2: In Canada, there’s one main organization you can write to to have your name and address deleted from their mailing lists.  Go here to stop the delivery of all addressed admail items.

#3: You can sign up with the Canadian Marketing Association’s Do Not Contact Service. Here, you can have your name and address removed from the marketing lists shared by hundreds of their members (from Microsoft to CIBC). It seems to have worked for us. Simply fill out the registration form. (While you’re at it, you might as well add yourself to the Do Not Call List to reduce telemarketing calls, too.)

In the U.S.:

As far as I understand, you have a few options: go here and here to get your name/address removed from major mailing lists.

In other countries, google “do not mail list” + your country’s name.

What do you think? Have you tried this? Ready to ditch the junk mail? Or is something holding you back? Tell me about it!

Title photo courtesy of Charles Williams. Other images: 0Four and Kenn Wilson.

 

 

7 Cheap and Awesome Items to Add to Your Toddler’s Toy Shelf

Adhering to minimalist principles can be a challenge when you’ve got kids. (I’ve written before about owning fewer possessions and living a minimalist lifestyle; and I’ve talked about minimizing baby stuff, too.)

We’re trying to avoid screens for our daughter before she turns two (and hopefully beyond), and we’re also trying to keep the number of toys we keep in the house to a minimum. That means we have to be creative sometimes. Keeping a kid happy and stimulated, while trying to get stuff done, without TV and electronic gadgets, requires a bit of imagination.

This list of toddler-friendly items includes open-ended materials which encourage creativity more than electronic gadgets and registered characters do. That means you don’t need to replace them all the time: you can just repurpose them when your kid gets bored of a certain activity. Altogether, they probably cost us less than $30.

These are all items that have turned out to be a big hit with my Lydia, from about 18-24 months. I’ve managed to come up with several activities that she finds interesting and engaging using these items, and can keep her quietly occupied for quite some time. (I also try to involve her in what I do around the house, from cooking to cleaning, when I can.)

Looking at my photos, you might notice that we’re inspired by a lot of Montessori principles: we prefer natural materials, where possible, over plastic. We think beauty and quality matter. We don’t shy away from breakable materials (like glass), to encourage our daughter to be gentle and respectful of her materials. And we store toys on low, accessible shelves, instead of tossing everything pell-mell into a box, so that everything is kept orderly and easy for her to access, and to encourage respect for each individual item.

Comme  ça:

toy shelf

(That being said, we still have plenty of cheap, plastic crap, and we let things get chaotic and messy on a daily basis).

We also strictly limit the amount of toys our daughter has access to, so she isn’t overwhelmed by stuff and is less prone to devaluing her materials. And also so that I have less stuff to pick up. These shelves represent everything she has access to right now, aside from her doll, doll cradle, and doll stroller.

My Seven Favourite Play Items for a Toddler

I think I got all of these items from Hobby Lobby during different visits to the US (Sadly, I don’t think we have this store here in Canada. I LOVE Hobby Lobby for these kinds of things!)

I should also probably point out that almost all the items I’ve listed come with a warning, “Not for children under 3.” Apparently they’re choking hazards and whatnot. So give them to your child at your own risk, and stay close while he/she uses them. I have never, ever had a problem with Lydia putting these items in her mouth. And besides, she needs my help opening the containers holding things she could potentially choke on. I try to keep an eye on her when she’s using them.

Pom-Poms

pom poms

When she was about 17 months, Lydia could spend half an hour pushing pom-poms through a hole in a jar lid. Our most successful activity to date.

Pom-pom activity

Now, she can also sort them by colour in a muffin tin (though she usually just dumps them into the cups indiscriminately).

Popsicle Sticks

When the pom-pom game got too easy,  we had Lydia push popsicle sticks through a slot. It’s a little more challenging, because you have to get the angle just right. Again, this could occupy her for ages.

popsicle sticks

Popsicle sticks can also be used with play-dough (below), and eventually for building things.

Jumbo Buttons

big buttons

These beauties from Hobby Lobby can be used for sorting (by colour, by shape, etc), for stringing onto pipe cleaners, and for decorating play-dough (below). Lots of possibilities. Lydia even loves to just shove her hand in the can and feel all the smooth buttons. (These are similar.)

Triangular Crayons

crayons

These crayons are made by Melissa & Doug, and they are the BEST. I’m a huge fan, and so is Lydia. She loves to draw!

Because they’re triangular, they don’t roll around, which is nice for your budding (but still-clumsy) artist. Also, they’re stronger than regular crayons, so they won’t break as easily. (We’ve had these for over a month, and Lydia uses them every day, but she hasn’t broken a single one. The only reason the white one is broken is because I absent-mindedly put it in my back pocket one time and then sat on it. Whoops! Good thing white almost never gets used…)

As you can see, these have been nibbled on a little bit, so be sure to keep an eye on your kid while she’s using them.

Big Wooden Beads

big wooden beads

These lovely beads can be used for stringing onto all kinds of things — pipe cleaners, leather laces, sticks, etc. You could also use them for practicing identifying colours, sorting, etc.

Pipe Cleaners

pipe cleaners

Also (apparently) known as “chenille stems,” these are great for little hands when learning to thread things. Yarn and string are generally too fiddly for most toddlers; pipe cleaners are a great alternative because they stay stiff. And you can thread them with all sizes of items — big or little beads, Cheerios, pasta noodles, etc.

Your toddler can also poke them through anything with holes, like a colander.

Realistic(ish) Toy Animals

toy animals

I am thrilled with these toy animals. I was looking for reasonably-realistic looking animals, but the gorgeous Schleich toys (at $6-12 apiece) were just out of our price range. I finally found a decent alternative: A Toob of animals (found — where else? — at Hobby Lobby). At less than $10 for a pack of 12, they were immediate winners. (We got the Zoo Babies; I’d like to get more in the future).

Lydia loves her animals. She can distinguish between her tiger cub and her leopard cub, and between her gorilla and her monkey.

Since I am a big nerd, I spent one Sunday morning (when I should have been in church — *ahem*) making laminated animal cards that corresponded with her plastic animals, so she could match them up. (I got the idea here).

animal matching gameShe loves both the toys and the cards, though she has only played the game all the way through once.

Bonus item: Play Dough

play dough

Don’t buy store-bought play-dough: make your own! It’s so easy and cheap! Play-dough provides lots of stimulating fun.

Lydia helped me make the play-dough (dumping ingredients and stirring), so even that was an activity.

making play dough

Here, we’re combining a few of the materials for an activity I saw on Pinterest:

play dough, beads, and wooden skewers(stringing beads onto wooden skewers, standing in play-dough. The original post uses spaghetti noodles instead of skewers. Safer.)

* * *

So these are some of our favourite cheap, simple, open-ended toddler toys.

What are some other items your toddler loves? What do you do with them? I’m always looking for fun activities.

Reader Response Post: What is a Waste of Time?

Question: How do you define wasting time?

What kinds of activities constitute a waste of time?

time

The Background to these Questions

One thing you may or may not know about me by now: I’m SLOW. (I hope someone else can relate).

It’s why all the bosses I’ve ever had have hated me, and why I’ll never make any money.

My brain processes things slowly. As a result, my hands move slowly. I’m a slow reader and a slow writer. Add to that a perfectionist streak, and I never get anything done.

I’m inefficient. I’m terrible at strategizing. Plus, I’m an incorrigible daydreamer, forever distracted and scatterbrained.

But I want to DO so many things. I want to write and paint and cook and garden and raise a family.

So:

I’m always trying to figure out how to make the most of my time. (Until I get distracted). It’s a puzzle I’ve been trying to figure out my whole adult life so far. (But I hate puzzles).

I want to know: how can I pare down my schedule so that I’m only doing valuable stuff? How do I get rid of the waste?

The trouble is, whenever I go over all the things I do in a day — especially the things that might seem like time-wasters — I don’t feel I can let any of it go. It’s all important to me.

  • Cooking from scratch
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Internet stuff: reading blogs, even being on Pinterest and Facebook . . . it’s valuable to me because I come across amazing information and ideas on a regular basis that enrich my life. Plus it’s important, as a blogger, to connect with my “tribe” on a regular basis.
  • Playing with Lydia and being present with her, cuddling, and enjoying her: these are some of the things that make my life worth living. And they’re important to her too, I’m sure.
  • Daydreaming and reflecting: my brain needs to play
  • Reading fiction: it’s where I experience beauty

(I do more things than these in a day. Laundry, grocery shopping, etc. These are just the first things I consider cutting when I’m trying to maximize my time).

So, back to my questions:  what does count as a waste of time? How do you define it? What are some activities that constitute wasted time?

I’m mostly curious what you’d come up with. I don’t know if you could really help me.

The only thing I could think of as a pure waste of time? Watching ads. Nothing good can come of it. That is time eaten out of your day that you can never get back or redeem. This is time that could be better used doing basically anything else.

(But Ben and I don’t watch TV, so that doesn’t really help me).

Thoughts?

Image courtesy of Bethan.

Rethinking Minimalism (A Little Bit): The Ethics of Food Storage

canning food

A while back, I wrote a post exploring the connections between Jesus’ teachings and minimalism. Much more could still be said on the subject — I’ve since realized that I overlooked a bunch of Scripture passages that point to a minimalist lifestyle.

However, I recently read Sharon Astyk’s superb book Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation, which challenged me to rethink things a little bit. (That’s my idea of a great book, by the way: one that forces me to reevaluate conclusions I’ve reached without making me feel angry or defensive).

As the title suggests, one of the book’s primary subjects is food storage. Of course, right off the bat, this subject made my brain start humming. Is food storage consistent with a minimalist lifestyle, I wondered? More importantly, does it fit in with life in the Kingdom?

My childhood familiarity with the Scriptures has always given me the general impression that storing possessions is bad. After a quick search on the word “store” in the Bible, for instance, I found these well-known passages:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven”  (Matthew 6:19).

“Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26).

Jesus also tells the story of a rich man who has such a great crop one year that he can’t store it all. He decides to build himself a bigger barn in which to store it and then take it easy for a couple of years. In response, God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Jesus explains, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

So food storage = bad?

Naturally, I’m discovering that the matter isn’t nearly so simple.

The Case for Food Storage

Astyk, drawing from her Jewish faith, makes some very compelling arguments for the merits of food storage.

In her introduction, she makes a case for the revival of what she calls “the welcome pantry and the welcome table.” For Astyk, the main purpose of having a full pantry is so that we always have something we can share with the people who come to our door.

“We think of the pantry as a measure of personal security – and it is,” she writes. “But it is also a measure of our capacity for generosity” (p.  xvi). She explains, “A reserve of food means that our pantry is never so empty that we cannot share a little” (xvi).

“We live in a world of need,” Astyk observes. She reminds us how many people go hungry ever day around the world and even here in North America, and notes that these numbers are rising.

“That rising tide of unfed hungers makes us see the world in terms of scarcity,” she observes. However, “the welcome table and the welcome pantry run contrary to this. They remind us that the summer comes round again, and that we have on hand sufficient to share, even if our sharing is plain” (xvii).

This is the important key to Astyk’s idea of food storage, and what makes her book remarkable: her repeated emphasis that “that reserve is for sharing, not for holding close” (p. 308).

And this totally resonates with Jesus’ parable about the man who builds bigger barns to hold his surplus of grain: he’s not storing it to share; he’s storing it so that he can “have plenty of grain laid up for many years.” He intends to “take life easy; [to] eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). It’s all for himself.

But back to Astyk. She points out, “Every faith that I know of has elaborate laws of hospitality and generosity. It is worth remembering that these faiths . . . grew up not in worlds of wealth and privilege but in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, when we were far poorer than we are now” (xviii).

Every faith demands that we welcome the stranger, even — or especially — in the face of our own hardships. And so we are wise and generous if we aim to have a stocked pantry so that we can help those people in need.

Moreover, if a time of need hits your community, and public food reserves become strained, Astyk argues that it may be your moral prerogative, if you have the means, to have a reserve of food of your own so that you are not taking food from others who do not have the means. She mentions folks like the elderly and disabled in particular. In other words, we should try to leave community reserves for those who need it more than ourselves.

The other major topic of the book is food preservation – that is, preserving food (using various methods) in times of plenty (like summer) so that they can be used in times of lack (like winter). Food preservation enables us to eat locally-grown foods year-round, so that we don’t have to rely on the unsustainable food system currently at work in North America.

Together, then, food preservation and food storage help diminish the power of the toxic, wasteful, destructive food systems of today in favour of more sustainable ones, which is a moral issue as well as a practical one.

stew food

Further Questions Regarding Minimalism

I must confess that it has crossed my mind before that extreme minimalism might have some ethical issues attached to it. With extreme minimalism, might we not end up relying on the preparedness of other people? Are we not simply asking other people to do the work of buying and maintaining the tools we might need?

Does minimalist living sometimes encourage us to take advantage of others?

(One way I have responded to these questions is to remind myself that most people in North America have WAY more stuff than they need which ends up going to waste. So taking advantage of their excess could actually be considered a moral act. It’s not my fault most homes contain seven times the amount of toys their kids need. But it frees me up from having to bring along toys for my own kid.)

And in the comments to one of my posts on minimalism, Lily pointed out how striving to live a simpler, more sustainable life actually prohibits minimalism to a certain extent. Growing, preserving and preparing your own food requires a fair amount of equipment and space. Like Lily, I own canners, a dehydrator, a Kitchenaid mixer, two freezers, etc. These are, I believe, helpful tools for building a sustainable food system.

And in fact, Sharon Astyk addresses this very issue: “For someone who is hostile to consumption, I have a lot of stuff. I live in a big old farmhouse full of stuff. I’m not really sure how to resolve this contradiction, or how I feel about it” (p. 285).

She adds, “I admire people like Peace Pilgrim and Buddhist monks who had with them only what they could carry. But of course, when Peace Pilgrim rested, she rested in the homes of people who had pots and pans and blankets. The Buddhist monks rely on charity from those who have more. The minimalist aesthetic works for some, but depends on there being community and public resources and those who have something to give” (p. 287).

Astyk has decided to try to create one of those homes that is able to welcome and sustain guests.

And I think I want to, too.

Final Thoughts

I still strive for minimalism in many areas of my life. However, in response to these reflections, I’ve come up with a couple of reminders for myself:

  • Motives matter. If I’m storing food and possessions with the mindset that it’s only for myself, I’m not being Kingdom-minded. I probably need to let it go or change my attitude.
  • What I’m collecting and storing matters. Are they merely status symbols, or sources of self-validation or a sense of security? Or are  they really valuable tools?
  • The amount of stuff I own matters. In terms of things like equipment, am I going beyond what I can reasonably use myself? Could someone else benefit from it more than me?

These are some of my reflections. What are your thoughts?

Images courtesy of chiostrun and smittenkittenoriginals.

For further reflection: consider the Parable of the Friend at Night (Luke 11:5-8).

 

An Experiment in Minimalism: Tackling the Bookshelf

books classic

After my last posts on minimalism (and my personal failings), I decided I should do an experiment in practicing what I preach.

I decided to pare down my library.

As I mention in my confession post, I know that they take up unnecessary space in my house. And anything that I’m not using could potentially be used by someone else. And besides, I thought it would be valuable to explore the reasons I hang onto things – to examine myself and try to understand what is driving my compulsion to hoard things.

Let me tell you, it was hard.

I didn’t realize how the exercise would force me to confront certain things about myself.

I realized, while I was struggling with my book shelf, that I was letting material things define me. That’s why I had so much trouble letting them go.

See, for years, I got my sense of identity from being a scholar. I was a very successful student in university. I kept all of my books and proudly displayed them at home on a book case in my living room like trophies. I have all these because I am a scholar, my bookshelf said.

 Or at least that’s what I thought it said.

Now, as a more mature person going through each book, one by one, then compulsively putting them back on the shelf, I realized what they were saying was something more like, I am a pretentious douche who hangs onto material possessions because I derive my self-worth from them.

(I wonder how many other people have heard them say that?)

For a long time, my books represented who I wanted to be: a smart, creative, cultured, intellectually sophisticated person. I kept them as physical reminders to myself that I am a worthwhile human being because I am well-read.

* * *

As I went through on each of my books, I had some almost-legitimate reasons to hang on to some of them.

What if I wanted to re-read them someday?

What if I wanted to reference a work in some of my own writing someday? Or just fact-check, or procure a quotation?

What if Lydia wants to read them someday?

I realized that these were pretty frail reasons to hang onto many of my books.

Most hadn’t brought me pleasure in their first reading – I’d only read them because I’d had to, and because they were canonical. I hated The Mill on the Floss. I found Wordsworth’s sister unbelievably boring. What made me think I would ever choose to read them again? And when would I ever write another academic essay in my life? And why would I want to encourage Lydia to read something as awful as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk?

I had to ask myself whether it was worth it to store books for years and years – moving them from house to house — just on the off-chance that I would want to read them again.

I concluded that it probably was not.

Into a box I reluctantly put them.

Then there were some completely illegitimate reasons for hanging onto my books.

But this one’s about Donne. I have a published article on Donne! I’m practically a Donne scholar! I can’t part with this.

And this one’s about Blake. I traveled to England to give a presentation on Blake! It just wouldn’t seem right to get rid of it.

I helped to publish these books! I’m . . . I’m kind of a part of them and they’re a part of me, right?

But these are CLASSIC WORKS that any true student of literature should have in her library!

In other words, I was still deriving my sense of identity from these books. I felt like they defined me, and I had sentimental attachments to them.

I had to argue with myself: But if they’re not enjoyable, what’s the point of keeping them? What’s the value of being a “true student of literature,” anyway? There’s no monetary reward for having read and kept Anna Karenina or Brothers Karamazov. And how does owning certain books make you one, anyway? 

And besides, if you ever decide you do want to read them for whatever reason, there’s always the library.

*Sigh.*

Into the box, into the box.

* * *

I decided to keep some of my books, of course.

I decided to keep books that I’d truly enjoyed, not the ones I thought I should have enjoyed. Jane Austen, Julian of Norwich and Charles Dickens (but not Hard Times) got to stay, as did John Donne (but not books about Donne).

I reasoned that I might want to lend out these books. I would want Lydia to read them someday, maybe.

And frankly, I just couldn’t bring myself to part with many of them, though it’s unlikely I’ll read them again, just because they were so formative. I LOATHED Nietzsche, but I spent so much time and energy into hating him, he was almost like an old friend.

I also kept all my anthologies. I am still a mere mortal. I paid so much money for them.

* * *

OK, honesty time:

When all was said and done, I only managed to get rid of about one-fifth of my books.* Many books that went into the box ended up back on the shelf. I know I’ll probably never need my German language textbook again, but what if I go to Germany some day?! And oh, those beautiful anthologies that smell like iambic pentameter. They are filled with my handwriting. Who would want scribbled-on anthologies?

But I guess the most valuable outcome of the experience was having to recognize how I let my material possessions define me.

I had to come to terms with the fact that that part of my life – the academic part – is over. While my experience at university shaped me profoundly, it’s not the biggest part of me anymore. I’m not a student anymore. And that’s okay.

And even if it was, owning books doesn’t make you a literary person. Loving books does. And my love of books will always be with me, no matter what’s sitting on my shelf.

How about you? Do you think you’ve ever let material possessions define you? Do you have the same problem with books that I have?

__

*No, I didn’t do any real math to come up with that number. I started out with five shelves full and ended up with four.

The Importance of Not Being Busy

time busy

The year before Lydia was born, I worked at a small publishing press which ran out of my boss’ home.

It was, without question, the worst year of my life.

I won’t go into everything here, but I came out of that experience having learned one important thing: I never, ever wanted to live like that man.

The word “ogre” doesn’t do justice to how absolutely miserably my boss was. His presence was toxic, shriveling, vitriolic.

He lived in the wealthiest suburban neighbourhood I’d ever seen: during lunch, I’d take walks along street after street of sprawling brick mansions on postage-stamp-sized lawns, polished by professional landscapers to utter perfection.

But my boss was a mess. His life was crammed full of responsibilities and activities. I came to the conclusion that his life was simply WAY WAY too full. He was too busy. There was no way he could keep up with everything he needed to do. He slept three hours a night, worked while eating lunch. His office was literally toppling over with stuff that needed his attention.

I didn’t want that life for myself.

I decided that I needed to make a commitment to not being busy.

I decided that I was willing to make all kinds of sacrifices to ensure I never became overly busy. I was willing to sacrifice dreams, goals, ambitions, money, status, and material possessions for the cause.

It’s the reason I currently only post twice a week on this blog, realizing that I’ll never become a “successful” blogger at this rate, though I’ve always dreamed of being a professional writer. I don’t care. I don’t want to be overly busy. My health and sanity are too important to me.

Since my time at the publishing press, I’ve continued to give more thought to the issue of busyness. I’ve watched people with packed schedules, and reflected on the lives of busy people I’ve seen throughout my life.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of being not busy.

Here are just a few reasons I am committed to not being busy.

Busy people are less likely to give their time to people in need.

I once read about an experiment done at a seminary where two groups of students were instructed to give presentations. One group was given the topic of the Good Samaritan while the other was given some other topic unrelated to helping others. All of them were made to wait in one building before walking to a second building to give their presentations.

Before they made their way to the second building, half of the students were told they had plenty of time before presenting while the other half was told they needed to hurry or they  would be late. Along the path, an actor lay on the ground, looking ill and in need of help. The experimenters predicted that the students who were given the topic of the Good Samaritan would be more likely to help.

Interestingly, there was no correlation between the presentation topic and the likelihood of stopping to help. The real determinant of who helped and who didn’t was how much time they were given: of those who were told they had plenty of time, most offered some kind of help, while almost none of those who were told they needed to hurry stopped to help.

In other words, the people who were in a hurry were much less likely to help the man in need.

(I learned similar things in Psych 101 in university: busy people are less likely to offer help than people who aren’t in a hurry).

The conclusion I drew from this experiment? We need to be less busy if we want to foster compassion and generosity. We need to have the space and time to be able to actually notice the people who need our help, and the flexibility in our schedules to be able to accommodate them.

Hurried people get into more accidents.

When you’re rushing around madly from one thing to the next, you’re not able to concentrate fully on each task. Busy people tend to feel the need to multi-task, resulting in divided attention. (Eating breakfast while driving, anyone?). Being in a rush is dangerous.

Busy people tend not to sleep enough or eat well.

In Western culture, when there are too many things to do, one of the first things to get cut from the to-do list is getting enough sleep. We just don’t value sleep as much as we value accomplishments. As a result, our health and our ability to concentrate suffer.

I’ve made a personal commitment to always get at least six hours of sleep every night (though I strive for around eight); if I ever get less than that in any given night, I’ve committed myself to taking a nap during the day. Sleep is too important to my overall health and well-being. Accomplishments can wait.

Another thing that often gets the axe when people are busy is the time to sit down to a home-cooked meal. We all know the consequences of this omission: westerners are overweight and suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and ADD. So again, I’ve made regular, home-cooked meals a priority over getting other stuff done.

Hurried people yell more.

I’ve seen this too much. When parents are in a hurry, they snap at their kids. When employers are under pressure, they holler at their employees.

I don’t want to be a yelling parent. So I’m keeping my schedule as empty as possible.

Busy people are no fun to be around.

Basically, for all of the reasons above: they tend to be anxious, sleep-deprived, and irritable. Busy people have no time for relaxation and play, so they don’t understand why you should.

I don’t want to be an ogre. So I avoid over-scheduling.

Busy children have a hard time identifying their true loves and passions.

I want my children to have time to be bored — to explore, invent, imagine, and play. And they won’t be able to do those things if I fill their lives with lessons, activities, and extracurriculars. So I want to encourage a slower pace for everyone. I might enroll Lydia in one or two things as she gets older — voice lessons, maybe, or a swimming or dance, depending on her interests — but I won’t hesitate to cut back if they put a strain on our daily rhythms.

Busy families are wasteful.

When everyone is dashing from one activity to the next, no one has time to wash piles of dishes or launder loads of cloth diapers or fold stacks of cloth napkins. Disposable consumer products become essential to the busy household: paper towels, disposable baby wipes (in disposable containers), individual-sized yogurt cups, styrofoam takeout dishes . . . the list goes on.

A commitment to sustainability, then, requires a commitment to keeping an emptier schedule, where there’s room to wash, scrub, fold, and reuse.

* * *
So those are just a few reasons I’m committed to a more relaxed schedule.

Am I missing anything?

Photo by Helga Weber.

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