How we take care of meal preparation and cooking (including our Food Planner)

At our home, we cook almost all our meals, including, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and only cook 3 times a week. How do we do that?

It all starts with planning

The first step is to plan out our upcoming week (we do this during our Weekly Review). We look at our calendars and see when/if we’ll be eating out during the upcoming week. On average, each of us eats out once a week. The rest of the meals we will prepare at home.

Then, we open up the food planner. It’s a spreadsheet that lists what each of us is going to eat when in the week and also what we need to do each day in terms of meal preparation. You can access my sample food planner spreadsheet here, and this is what it looks like:

This is a sample food planner for a week. The columns are days of the week, and the rows are my meals, Jacob’s meals, and the cooking or defrosting tasks per day. 2d, 3d, or 4d denotes how many days a thing should last us, which determines the dose we make.

Meal preparation

We have three cook-up sessions: Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. The Sunday session is the biggest, so it lasts for about 2 hours. The Tuesday one is the shortest, and it takes about 1 hour, while the Thursday one is medium, lasting about 1.5 hours.

On Sunday evening, we cook:

  • Breakfasts Monday-Thursday (we freeze the Wednesday and Thursday ones);
  • Lunches Monday-Tuesday;
  • Dinners Sunday-Monday;
  • Prep some veggies (such as cauliflower rice) to cook later in the week.

On Tuesday evening, we make:

  • Lunches Wednesday-Thursday;
  • Dinners Tuesday-Wednesday.

On Thursday evening, we make:

  • Breakfasts Friday-Sunday;
  • Lunches Friday-Sunday;
  • Dinners Thursday-Friday/Saturday.

We usually eat out on Friday or Saturday evening, so we don’t prep for that meal.

How we do our cooking

On Sundays, we cook together. When we’re both in the kitchen, it’s fun because we talk about all kinds of things. We usually prepare variations of the same (favorite) meals, so we know what we’re doing with little discussion. But when we decide to try a new recipe, we need to coordinate a bit more and discuss the different steps.

An important consideration is not to get in each other’s way. For this reason, we have two chopping stations (luckily, we have a big kitchen counter) with two chopping boards (one for each of us) and multiple knives.

The way we have divided responsibilities, Jacob chops most vegetables and takes care of things cooking on the stove or in the oven. That’s a lot of work, but, luckily, he’s faster (and dare I say more skilled?) than I am in the kitchen, so he handles it well.

I grate vegetables in the food processor (carrots and apples for a salad and cauliflower for cauliflower rice). I prepare the salad dressings and other mixtures (e.g., egg mixture for frittata). I also make dessert (e.g., chop up apples to bake in the oven with cinnamon or make sweets from dates).

We can’t always cook together, though. Jacob has irregular working hours, so on Tuesdays and Thursdays he cooks during the day and works in the evenings, while I cook in the evenings after work. We know beforehand what each of us needs to make that day, so we do it in our own time.

This is what our fridge looks like on a typical Sunday evening when all the food has been prepared.

Storing prepared food

I should also mention storing food. It’s important to store food in a way allows it to stay good and also so you can see what’s in different containers.

We recently bought lots of glass containers, which have the benefit of being transparent, so we can see at a glance what’s in there, and they also don’t leak health-damaging ingredients into our food in the way that plastic containers do. Glass containers are an investment, but I highly recommend them, especially if you like to heat up your food in those containers (for instance, your lunch at work; it’s really not a good idea to heat up food in plastic containers in the microwave because the plastic leaks into your food and messes with your hormonal health, even if the containers are BPA-free). Once we prepare the food, we store it into these containers and put it in the fridge or freezer.

We prepare our lunches in this way, so they’re easy to grab in the morning. I also put our salad dressing in little glass containers, so we take those and pour the dressing over our salad at work instead of doing it beforehand and then eating soggy salad.

Food prep in a nutshell

I can imagine that elaborate food preparation may sound intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but it only takes a couple of iterations to get the hang of it. We spend almost no time on the actual food planning anymore (5-10 minutes a week depending on whether it’s an irregular week) because we have a routine we like.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are lots of food prep platforms that can help. I’m aware of a couple: Paleo Leap Meal Plan and Nom Nom Paleo Meal Plan. These tools can save you lots of time, effort, and trial-and-error while you’re still getting used to meal planning, but they are paid. So you need to think what makes the most sense for you to do.

Our food preparation has a couple of stages:

  • Plan meals and associated tasks in our Food Planner;
  • Decide and schedule when each person can cook and what they need to do;
  • Do cooking and meal prep;
  • Store food in fridge or freezer;
  • Enjoy!

It feels amazing to me to cook three times a week but have food ready for every single meal of the week (it only needs to be warmed up). It’s delicious because we eat food we love, but it also saves so much time!

Would you like to try our Food Planner? Let me know if you have any questions or comments. Do you have a different way of handling your cooking, or perhaps you don’t meal prep at all? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo from Marisha Manahova

The missing piece for our household’s functioning–Power Hour!

Last week, I wrote about how our household functions well because of the Weekly Review. That really does work well, but there was something else that wasn’t going quite right…

The problem: Non-urgent, nagging tasks

I noticed that some things were falling through the cracks. You know how sometimes an important but non-urgent letter arrives, and you think, “Ah yes, I’ll deal with this,” and in the end you don’t? This was basically what was happening to us.

It happened to Jacob with sending stuff back a couple of times. He ordered a couple of shirts online, tried them on, didn’t like them, and meant to return them. He left them on the dining table, so he could see them easily and thus remember to send them back. But returning them didn’t feel urgent.

I reminded him several times to start the return procedure, but he told me to, “Relax, pumpkin.” Okay, I relaxed. When he decided to return them, he realized that they should have been returned within 15 days, and today was day 16. Too bad. Now we were stuck with unwanted shirts.

I tried to identify the problem. What had gone wrong in this situation? Well, this task didn’t have a time when it could be done. The assumption was that when Jacob had time, he’d get to it. But things that don’t seem urgent or important often don’t get done in a timely manner.

The solution: Power Hour!

And then it hit me: We need to make time to do these things! All kinds of random errands and seemingly unimportant or non-urgent things need a time when they can get done. So I blocked an hour per week on both of our calendars when we can do this. Gretchen Rubin calls this Power Hour, which is a strikingly fitting name.

This is how Power Hour works: throughout the week, we put stuff that needs to be tackled in our Inboxes (a container for each of us), and during Power Hour, we take the stuff out and do what needs to be done. It works surprisingly well because an hour doesn’t feel like a lot of time to dedicate to nagging tasks, but it’s enough to keep things going and not get bogged down by forgotten tasks (or shirts that don’t fit).

This is one of those really practical ideas that seems simple but makes a big difference. At least for us it’s been very helpful. You certainly don’t need to implement this as a couple; one person can benefit from Power Hour just as much.

Would you like to try Power Hour? How do you tackle nagging, non-urgent tasks? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

The Home Weekly Review: Why our household is functioning well

In our home, we manage to get quite a lot of stuff done without too much stress, and we also get to relax and do fun stuff together. How do we do this? The key is the Weekly Review.

There are a couple of things we need to keep track of in our household. Both Jacob and I have work obligations that we need to communicate to each other, irregular working hours, and additional projects that need extra coordination. On the home front, we do substantial meal preparation since we cook all our food (each of us eats out about once per week), and we also exercise 3-4 times per week. Not to mention that we’re getting ready for a baby, which (who knew?) means that we’ve had to do more shopping than we’ve done in years.

How we started

Soon after Jacob and I started dating, we needed to coordinate schedules. We’d usually spend the weekends together, and on Sunday evening, when he was dropping me off, we’d talk about when we’d see each other next. Needless to say, this wasn’t the best time to have that conversation because both of us were trying to remember our schedules for next week off the tops of our heads. This led to lots of back-and-forth texting in the beginning of the week and too much logistics for a fresh couple.

One Sunday afternoon, I suggested a simple idea to him:

“Hey, how about we sit down and look at our calendars now to figure out what we’re doing next week?”

It was super quick and easy. We spent maybe 15 minutes comparing our schedules and figuring out when would be a good time to meet up. We kept this up for months until we moved in together. At that point, there were many more things to discuss, so I proposed adding some structure to the Weekly Review. I adapted it from my own weekly review which I do for work, and it was surprisingly effective.

We still do the Weekly Review every Sunday. We usually do it in the afternoon (before our meal prep), and it takes 30-60 minutes depending on how many things we need to discuss. Here’s what our Weekly Review looks like.

What we include in our Weekly Review

  1. What did we do this week?
  2. What went well?
  3. What didn’t go so well?
  4. Did things fit our priorities?
  5. What will we do next week?
  6. Food plan
  7. Financial overview

We sit next to each other with our laptops, and we go over the past week according to our calendars. There are several reasons why this exercise is useful:

  • It reminds you of everything you’ve done that week;
  • You may remember that you need to follow up on something or finish something up, so you can create a reminder or task to reflect that;
  • You can assess what went well during the week, so you may choose to attend an event you liked again, hang out with people you enjoyed, or continue to apply a time management strategy you tried out;
  • You can also assess what didn’t go so well. Maybe you thought you’d be finished with a task in an hour but in fact it took three; maybe you tried to pack in too many tasks in too short a time and felt stressed or overwhelmed; maybe you didn’t spend enough time on something you find important (such as putting together baby furniture…) or you worked hard but didn’t make time to see your friends.

The past week

I assess my week in this way, and then Jacob assesses his. We try to figure out what we’re happy with from the past week and what we can improve. We can also, of course, make suggestions about the other person’s things or share if something the other person did didn’t work for us.

We also ask ourselves whether what we did in the past week fit our priorities. You can have a very productive and perfectly organized week, but if what you did didn’t make you happy or if you missed something and couldn’t fit it into your life, you need to think about making a change. It’s okay if not each week fits our priorities, but we need to watch out for many weeks in a row feeling unsatisfying or draining. This could add up and lead to burn out, unhappiness, or health problems, so it’s much better to catch it early.

The upcoming week

Then, we move on to the next week. Again, we look at our calendars and discuss what we’re going to do. We discuss any logistical issues or things we may need to coordinate (who needs the car when; when we’re going to see which friends; when we’re going to assemble some baby furniture… do you see a pattern here?).

Then, we also check our tasks and projects (Wunderlist lists and Trello boards) and think about when we may do what. This we can often do individually, but we can also ask the other person in case we need some input. Often, we catch time conflicts in this way and manage to resolve them because there’s enough time (instead of it happening the night before).

We also leave some time as ‘couple time.’ We used to make the mistake where we completely booked ourselves with stuff, up till the end of the evening. It’s easy to do when I wanted to finish a little bit of work after dinner or when Jacob was studying for an extra qualification. In the end, we chose to reserve some time for those things but also leave some time for quality time together. A little bit of time like this a couple of times a week allows us to feel connected even when we’re doing a lot and juggling many other responsibilities at the same time.

Other stuff

Then, we look at our food plan for the upcoming week. I usually make the food plan because I care about eating delicious and non-boring food which is also healthy and makes me feel good. Jacob likes his food to be healthy, but he doesn’t care much for variety; he could eat the exact same weekly menu all year round, but I can’t do that. Thus, I look up cool recipes and add them to our weekly menu to spice things up. This also gets us ready for our meal prep session which follows after the Weekly Review.

Finally, we do a financial overview. We track our spending and use You Need a Budget, an app that helps us reflect on our spending and set budgets and financial goals for ourselves. We check this as part of our Weekly Review to see how we’re doing on different budgets, where we need to stop spending, where we can spend more, or what categories we need to transfer more money to. This also makes us more aware of our spending and how we might like to change that to reflect our priorities better.

Until next week!

And that’s it for the Weekly Review! It has both purely administrative and logistical uses such as time management and planning, and it also facilitates reflecting on our priorities. We both really appreciate the Weekly Review for what it does for our household; seriously, Jacob never wants to skip it because it contributes to a much smoother work- and life-flow. And for me that’s great because what could be more fun on a Sunday afternoon that the Weekly Review?! Really, nothing!

Are you tempted to try the Weekly Review? Do you do something similar in your own way? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Janina Pieterse

Our method for organizing our home (including worksheet)

My husband and I got serious about organizing our home this time! Okay, I got serious, meaning I printed out worksheets and stuff. Jacob just went along with it, poor soul…

Applying Organizing from the Inside Out

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I read Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out and decided to apply her system to our home. She proposes three stages to the organizing process:

  1. Analyze: You (and anybody sharing the space) discuss the current state of your physical environment and what you’d like to get out of it;
  2. Strategize: You come up with a strategy for how you will use different areas of your home or office and then decide where things will be stored in each area; you also estimate how much time you will need for organizing each section of your home;
  3. Attack: You go through your stuff, decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw away; you organize the things you decide to keep; you also continue maintaining the system in the future.

I made a worksheet to fill out and follow when doing this in our own home. You can find the worksheet here, but I highly recommend reading the book before diving in. Julie Morgenstern includes so many practical tips that the system can be useful to anyone, including people with very different preferences and challenges.

Analyze

Jacob and I liked the ‘Analyze’ portion. We answered the five questions (see worksheet above), which was useful because each of us had a different take on things. The most useful questions for us were, “What’s working?” and, “What’s not working?” I need to note that we were already fairly organized, so we didn’t need to sit down and think about our motivation and problems from scratch; we already knew why we like to be organized, and we just needed some tweaks. But it’s always good to revisit the motivation and the bigger goals in order to be on the same page.

Strategize

Then, we moved on to the ‘Strategize’ portion. We found that we didn’t need to list all the areas in our house by activity, supplies, and storage units, as is suggested in the book. Most of our areas and storage units work well, so we just mentioned those. We focused on the areas that aren’t working well and how we’d like to change them. We explored our current habits, what’s not working, and how we can improve the situation.

For example, we have an issue with our ‘Home Information Center,” i.e., the place where stuff (mail, deliveries, etc.) comes in and where stuff needs to wait until it’s dealt with or stored. We have dedicated inboxes where we’re supposed to put the stuff that comes in, but the trouble is that we never look at those inboxes, so we also don’t put stuff in there. Instead, we just put mail and packages and stuff from other people on the dining table and on the counter, but things pile up quickly. We try to use the thing itself as a visual cue to remind us to deal with it, but the counter gets cluttered so quickly that it becomes impossible to remember what we were supposed to do with what.

As a solution, we decided to create dedicated inboxes as well as outboxes (one of each for Jacob and one of each for me) and place them on the counter (instead of on the shelf where the inboxes are now, making them more difficult to reach). We’re also going to establish a habit of going through the inboxes and outboxes at regular intervals, so stuff doesn’t get forgotten in there.

This is one example, but we tackled and problem solved for several such problematic areas in our home. I wrote down the solutions we had identified and any additional items we might need to buy to make these solutions possible.

I have to say we didn’t map out the space or rearrange the furniture as suggested in the book. We weren’t looking to make any of these changes, so for us that didn’t seem necessary.

We also didn’t estimate how long each organizing activity would take us. We’ve set aside a couple of blocks of time each week for organizing, so we’ll keep going until we’re done. Also, I like to set a Pomodoro timer to go off every 25 minutes when we’re organizing/decluttering: it forces us to take a little break, and it also reminds us of the time that has already passed.

Attack

Then, we went ahead, took the plunge, and started organizing things. We began with the living room as that’s our most clutter-attracting part of the house.

1. Sort

First, we took out our stuff from shelves, containers, etc. and looked at it. We started with the visible stuff: the stuff on the dining table and the counter or the stuff that didn’t have a place. That gave me an immediate feeling of progress because these are the things I’ve been wanting to be gone.

2. Purge

Next, we decided what we’d like to keep and what we’d like to discard (either give away or throw away). There were also some things we moved to storage in the basement.

3. Assign a home

For the things we wanted to keep, we assigned a home. We took convenience into account: how convenient is it to use this box on this shelf? How often do we use this and how important is it that it has such a prominent location in our living room? What would make this document collection easier to peruse?

4. Containerize

Next, we identified which things should go into which containers. I’m not huge into containers; I know some people put everything in a separate container, but that seems like an overkill to me. Also, when you get more stuff of a certain type, then you have to get a new container… it’s a bit too much for me to have super specific containers for everything.

But we definitely use containers for some types of things, and we added a couple of boxes to group similar items and make them easier to reach and use.

5. Equalize

We discussed what would be the best way for us to maintain our living room in the shape it was now and agreed on a weekly time to go through our stuff and get up to speed, if necessary. I can say much more on this topic, but I’ll keep it short for now.

And this was it for our living room! We have a system that suits our habits better now, so I’m hopeful that it will stick. Next up: the kitchen…

How do you organize your home? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Image from Michael Basial (CC BY-NC 2.0)

How to organize your home for functionality, not for perfection

Every autumn, I get a yearning to organize my home and make it super tidy. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was in its perfect place and looked just right?

However, this type of compulsion to tidy up can leave me overwhelmed and exhausted, as I wrote about in this blog post, so I resist it. I try to engage with it only as long as it’s helpful instead of when it’s making me annoyed or impatient.

I’ve read a couple of organizing books recently, and I’m currently reading Julie Morgenstern’s organizational classic Organizing from the Inside Out. While reading the first few chapters, I completely fell in love with the idea of a perfectly organized home. How pleasant and peaceful it would be to have a completely tidy room! But then I thought better of it. Is it really?

I noticed an interesting distinction: Julie Morgenstern talks about organization in terms of functionality and efficiency, while I think mostly about aesthetics. She emphasizes that you should observe your own habits and tendencies and build your environment in a way that supports you. For instance, if, after coming home, you like to dump your mail on the dining table, take that as a given. Perhaps place a box for incoming mail right there on the dining table or very close to it and create a routine where you go through that inbox every evening after dinner. It’s much easier to maintain a system, she argues, if it’s adapted to your needs rather than if you have to adapt to your system.

Adapt your organizational system to your habits

This has been a major light bulb moment for me. I don’t usually care much about functionality or efficiency. As long as things have a place, I’ll put them there, even if it’s a little inconvenient. But Jacob, my husband, really likes things being convenient, and I can see why.

So, right now we’re in the process of moving things around in our kitchen. In the past, we assigned spots for pots, pans, and plates based on where they fit. While this is also clearly important, sometimes the arrangement is not super convenient. We don’t keep our spices, for example, close to where we cook, and it’s not particularly nice to have to move spices back and forth across the kitchen multiple times. This means we end up leaving the most commonly used spices out on the counter, which annoys me.

As a solution, we’ve now moved our spices to a shelf right above the cooking area, which is super convenient. We used to keep our teas there, but teas don’t need to be close to the cooking area, so why keep them there? Hopefully, we’ll now put away our spices rather than leaving them on the counter.

This is a small example, but it has important consequences if applied on a larger scale. If things are convenient to use and easy to put away, then our organizational system has a much higher chance of surviving. Then, we can have a tidy home without the maintenance feeling tedious or burdensome.

Perspective shift

For me, this has a bigger consequence as well. Being tidy, to me, represents having things in perfect order. If one thing is in the wrong place, this means I’ve failed, which makes me so uncomfortable that I need to move this thing immediately.

In contrast, if the emphasis is on functionality, the whole perspective shifts. When things are reasonably tidy, great, the organizational system is working well. When things start getting messy, it means our habits have shifted a bit, and the current system doesn’t accommodate them as well as it could. We can identify the problem and make a few small changes, so the system starts working well for us again.

Note that the emphasis here is not on perfection. It’s on having a reasonably well-functioning organizational system. Also, it’s perfectly fine and part of the deal that we need to constantly keep adapting our system, so it can be in tune with our current habits and demands.

Do you have an organization system that works well for you? Or, on the contrary, one that doesn’t work well? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

How I reached an optimal level of tidiness

Photo: Me in my early teens, thriving on a messy room. Apparently, that’s possible too.

I love an organized house. If it were up to me, my home would be super tidy, and everything would have an exact place. It feels so peaceful to look at a perfectly organized room.

In fact, when I lived by myself, that’s how it was. I had a specific way of organizing the pillows on the couch or of putting the tea cups in the kitchen cupboards. When some friends came to visit, they found it extremely amusing that all my spices were arranged in rows, with the labels all facing forward. I didn’t get why this was so amusing; how could you possibly arrange your spices differently?!

The challenge

Things changes when Jacob and I moved in together. While he’s not extremely messy, he’s more towards the middle of the spectrum, while I’m at, well, one end of it. He was going to move into my place, but he owned quite a lot of stuff, so we very deliberately went through all his stuff, chose what to keep and what to give away or throw away. This was much better than just moving all his stuff.

For the sake of fairness, I went through my stuff and removed unnecessary items as well. After all, I wanted to make space for him to move in with me, and I didn’t mind getting rid of stuff I wasn’t using.

But when we actually started living together, I found it difficult not to have everything my way. He was good about being clean and more tidy than before, but things were still not how they had been when I lived by myself.

However, I realized that my standards were not realistic for other people and, honestly, they were too much even for me sometimes. I liked it when things were tidy, but it was exhausting to keep them like that all the time. It was irrational to expect another person to keep to my standards for no better reason than that I just liked things that way.

My own exposure therapy

So for the first one or two months of living together, I basically did a form of exposure therapy. I saw my spices arranged differently, not in rows, with some labels not facing forward (what a tragedy!). I had the urge to re-arrange them, but I resisted. I saw letters, keys, and wallets on the dining table and didn’t put them away. I saw my toothbrush and the toothpaste placed in a different spot on the sink and resisted the urge to move them back. (Nope, that one still gets me! There’s a just a specific spot where my toothbrush and toothpaste go!)

It wasn’t exactly easy to give myself this exposure to things not being in the way I’d place them. I realized what the problem was: I thought that whenever he left something in the “wrong” place, it meant he didn’t care. He was disregarding my preferences and, thus, my feelings. I told him about this, and he was rather surprised. He said the two things had nothing in common in his mind, and over time I came to believe him.

Knowing that this was important for me, he tried harder to be tidy. For instance, he began putting the car keys in the key bowl, so I could find them easily as well. Nowadays, if sometimes I accidentally leave the car keys on the table instead of in the key bowl, he calls out, “Where are the car keys? Why are they not in the key bowl?!” I apologize and promptly put them in the key bowl next time. Who would have thought this day would come!

The optimal level of tidiness

Unwillingly, I have to report that I’ve also become happier since things in our house became less strictly organized. It took a lot of pressure off of me! I didn’t have to always have everything in perfect order. If I didn’t feel like tidying up right this moment, I could leave it for later. This never felt possible before! In the past, the out-of-place objects had some sort of power over me, compelling me to put them in place.

Now, I can choose whether I want to put things away or not. I also don’t have to make the space perfectly organized, but it’s alright if it’s “good enough.” This “good enough” is still a work in progress, but it’s much less strict than before.

And, most importantly, I know that we can communicate about our living space. If at some point our surroundings get too messy and start annoying me, I can simply say to him, “Hey, things are getting a bit messy, do you mind if we tidy up a bit?” He understands what I mean, and we simply put things away.

And now that we’re about to have a baby, my tolerance for messiness needs to go way up! As I read in one book, “When your toddler is feeding himself, don’t try to run around, keeping the floor clean. Let it go! Your kitchen floor will be clean again once he goes off to college.” Oh, dear. That’s a long time to have a messy floor.

What is your optimal level of tidiness (or messiness)? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo credits: my mom.

When self-care becomes non-negotiable

Perhaps surprisingly, self-care is not super easy for me. Most of the time, I manage to follow the priorities I set for myself, so my life feels like it’s in accordance with what I want. This may be relatively easy for me because I’m an Upholder according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework, which means that I meet my own expectations as easily as I meet other people’s expectations. But that doesn’t apply with equal strength to everything.

One major point of difficulty is self-care. Self-care is a popular topic right now, being discussed by life coaches, health professionals, and writers. You might think that, as an Upholder, I wouldn’t struggle with this, but that’s not the case. I admit that I find it easier to do things for myself (such as find time to exercise or set aside me-time) than some other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely easy.

Lie down!

A week ago, I had a funky experience. I was doing my thing around the house, getting ready for work, when I got a sudden, sharp pain in my belly. Not a great thing when you’re pregnant. A few seconds later it went away, so I continued going about my business, but then it came back again. I thought it might be something, so I lay down and called my obstetrician. She told me to lie down for 20-30 minutes or until it goes away. She said it’s not super worrisome, but I should try to prevent it from happening.

After speaking to her, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Lie down for 30 minutes?! But I have a plan for today, I have work to do!” My mind was in go-go-go mode, and I didn’t want to lie down, but apparently my body needed me to pause. When self-care became non-negotiable, I obliged, but it would have never happened otherwise.

Take breaks (again…)

Along the same line, I’ve known for a long time that I should take frequent breaks from sitting for the health of my back. Did I do this regularly in the past? Not really. I’d set a timer for 25 minutes and mean to get up and walk around when it went off, but it was so much easier to keep working–it’s just unpleasant to be interrupted. So I’d end up ignoring the timer and only getting up when I got stiff.

As I described in a post last week, pregnancy has forced me to change this behavior. Since my back is getting much more tired now, I really do get up when that timer goes off (okay, most of the time I do…) and walk around. But I’m only doing this because of the real possibility that I may get a trapped nerve in my back if I continue sitting all day without breaks. Again, the circumstances have made it unavoidable that I have to take care of my back.

Get more sleep (finally)

Big surprise: I’ve been needing more sleep since I got pregnant. I sleep 8.5-9 hours a night, and if I sleep any less, I wake up tired and groggy. This is crazy! 7.5-8 hours of sleep used to be fine, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore.

At first, I tried to make it through the day with my usual amount of sleep and maybe catch a little snooze for 15 minutes after lunch. Nope, that didn’t work; I was just irritable and tired.

So now I’m making sure I get more sleep. I start my bedtime routine at 21:00, get in bed at 22:00 (or 22:30 at the latest), put on my sleep mask and earplugs, and sleep until 7:00! I feel like a boring person for going to bed so early, but it makes such a big difference to wake up rested. I decided to enjoy good sleep for now while I still have the opportunity.

Is self-care selfish?

I keep wondering why it is so difficult to take care of ourselves even when we know we should. We all know we should make time for our own needs and health, but it feels harder to do that than to work, clean the house, or help a friend, for example.

I think it’s because we feel that we are the only ones benefiting from our self-care, and we’ve been taught not to be selfish. Technically, we’re not the only ones benefiting because we’re much better able to do our work or take care of others when we’ve taken care of ourselves, but this is often difficult to see because the benefits for other people are not immediately obvious.

Pregnancy has been a good reminder for me that taking care of myself means simultaneously taking care of someone else. Having this reason has made it easier for me to rest more, although I still feel guilty and like I should be doing more.

I recently came across a post from Molly Galbraith where she says that every woman has the right to take care of herself not because that makes her a better caretaker but just because she is worth it. This struck me. It applies to any human being: we shouldn’t need a reason to take care of ourselves; we should just do so because we inherently deserve it.

How to ensure we take care of ourselves

I think many of us are not quite there yet, although it would be great if we were. For all of us who struggle with self-care, it may be best to:

  • Find a good reason (a strong ‘why’) which leads us to engage in self-care (as pregnancy is for me right now);
  • Find an effective accountability system: join a group that will keep you accountable, find a buddy for a certain activity, or get a coach (in my case, it works when my husband says, “You’ve been standing for a long time, you need to sit down (or lie down) for five minutes” or “You’re tired, you need to go to bed”);
  • Find a system that works for you (such as my timer that tells me to get up and walk around).

While it would be great if we could take care of ourselves simply because we’re worth it, I believe that anyway we can get ourselves to engage in self-care is achieving the goal.

How do you take care of yourself? What do you struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Min An on Pexels

What I do to alleviate back pain during pregnancy

Recently, my back has been getting tired as my belly has been growing. This is what I’ve been doing to relieve the tension.

The most important trick: take breaks!

Jacob, my chiropractor husband, had told me a long time ago that since I sit at a desk at work, I need to take frequent breaks. I’ve often gone back and forth on this one, taking breaks for a few days or even a week and then going back to being too lazy to walk up and down the hallway. I used to set a reminder every hour that said, “Take a break!” When that reminder popped up, I’d think, “You’re not going to tell me to take a break!” and keep working.

But I was recently reminded of the importance of taking breaks. It really makes a difference if I get up for a few minutes and walk around or do some simple stretches. My back is better able to stay seated afterwards and doesn’t get as tired.

Therefore, I’ve re-established the use of the Pomodoro method (I’m currently using the Focus Booster app because it has a nice small clock that can stay on top of whatever other app I’m using, so I can always see how much time I have left of my work period). The Pomodoro method alternatres work periods (typically 25 minutes) with break periods (typically 5 minutes and every ~2 hours a longer break) and emphasizes focusing on one task at a time and avoiding distractions.

Funny enough, I also use this method for other activities such as cooking. Jacob and I have two long cooking sessions a week (on Sunday and Wednesday evenings) which usually last 1.5-2 hours, and we cook all our food for the next few days (including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any snacks). If I remain standing in the kitchen for 2 hours, this kills my back. Therefore, I set a Pomodoro timer, and after 25 minutes, I take a break. I usually sit or lie down, and after 5 minutes I’m ready to continue cooking.

These frequent breaks have nicely come together with my Doing Nothing practice. I try not to check my phone during the 5-minute breaks and instead allow my thoughts to wander and do their thing. Only now do I realize that a brief message or notification can distract me when I’m in working mode. Even if I read it during the break between two work sessions, I sometimes keep thinking about the message when I start working again and can’t focus as well as I did beforehand. More generally, responding to messages or checking social media during a brief break can easily extend a 5-minute break to 10 or 15 minutes, which is then not simply a brief, refreshing break.

Exercise and walking

Since the beginning of my pregnancy, I’ve been following a training program for pregnancy called Moms Gone Strong which includes strength and cardio exercise. This program is amazing and has helped me challenge myself appropriately and continue to strengthen my back. I usually train 3-4 times a week.

I also do prenatal yoga from Yoga with Adrienne 1-2 times per week. It helps me relax and get some pressure off my back, and it generally gives me that wonderful zen feeling that yoga brings.

I really like walking, so I try to get in a 30-minute walk every day. If I have the time, I go for 1-1.5 hours, taking a short break every 30 minutes or so. I love going for walks in nature whenever possible.

A couple of months ago, my lower back muscles started cramping up quite a bit. Jacob explained that this happens because now, due to the growing belly, my front core muscles can’t really work anymore, so my lower back muscles end up carrying the weight of the whole belly and also help me stay upright. Because of the structure of my lower back and spine, the muscles end up cramping up, which is painful.

Jacob suggested that I roll my back and glutes on a lacrosse ball. Yikes. I hadn’t done this before, so it hurt like a *$@%*&#*$&*# the first few days when I was rolling on the ball, but immediately afterwards the cramping up was released and I was more pain-free for the rest of the day. Now I use the lacrosse ball almost every day, and while it’s not exactly pleasant (i.e., it still hurts), it’s much more bearable than at first. It definitely helps to release those cramped up back muscles!

These are the tricks I’ve discovered so far to alleviate backache and that work best for me. Let me know if you have other awesome tips I should know about!

Have you tried any of these suggestions? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo from Pexels

The Art of Doing Nothing

We’re very good at being busy and running around, but do we ever manage to stop and truly do nothing?

I recently came across a cool idea: the Art of Nothing by Dr. Alessandra Wall. It’s the simple suggestion to take some time every day to do nothing. Yes, yes, I thought, I know that’s important. But I don’t have time to do nothing.

Most days, we’re running around from thing to thing, rushing and not stopping until the end of the day when, finally, we plop down on the sofa, exhausted. When we do take a break in the evening, we watch TV, check the messages on our phone, scroll through social media, or read a book. We rarely take the time to really and truly do nothing.

Dr. Alessandra Wall argues that having time to do nothing allows our thoughts to wander and make connections, so eventually we can make sense of what is happening in our lives and realize where we’d like to go from here. She makes the point that without such time to gain clarity, we are mostly floating along and may end up in a situation (e.g., job, relationship, etc.) that we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for ourselves. The feeling of, “This is not the life I wanted,” “How did it come to this?!” or “This is not who I am!” may be resolved if we sometimes let our minds wander, so we can reflect and make sense of the events in our lives.

How to practice the Art of Nothing?

Since I’ve been meditating for years, this idea immediately reminded me of meditation. The similarity is that both meditation and the Art of Nothing provide a way to observe your thoughts and reflect on them. Also, both approaches emphasize sitting down and taking a moment to be present and notice what’s going on.

The difference is that meditation is much more structured and feels goal-oriented (even though ideally it shouldn’t be). When meditating, there is a certain technique we’re using or instructions we’re following. It’s difficult to feel like we’re having a good meditation session because thoughts inevitably come up and distract us from the focus of attention or, in other techniques, the open awareness we’re maintaining. Even if our meditation teacher has told us multiple times that it’s okay and perfectly normal for the mind to wander, we still often feel that we’re supposed to avoid thoughts.

It struck me how different the Art of Nothing felt in that respect. Basically, you plop down on the sofa and let go. Many thoughts will come to mind, and that’s the whole point. You’re not telling your mind to be still or to focus on the present moment; some days it may do so, and other days it may not. That’s okay. You’re just providing space for your mind to do its thing.

Some meditators will point out that this is a type of meditation, and indeed it is. I view it as a more unstructured rest for the mind, or an opportunity to set the mind free for a little while.

Interestingly, for someone like me who is generally quite structured, some unstructured mind space really comes in handy. I practice Doing Nothing (as I call it) 2-3 times a day for 5-10 minutes, and I feel refreshed every time after I’ve done it and better able to engage in the next activity.

It’s difficult not to be goal-oriented

As much as I enjoy this being an unstructured activity, I also struggle with it. If there’s no goal to it, then why am I doing it? How do I know it’s having an effect if I’m not intentional with how I’m doing it? Am I just wasting my time?

With meditation, I used to enjoy having a meditation course or pack to complete or some technique to focus on. However, over the last couple of months, I was feeling like meditation was a burden, one more obligation I had to fulfill. It was difficult to get myself to meditate because I simply didn’t want to. I started getting strangely rebellious against the meditation instructions (“You can’t tell me to take a deep breath! I’ll take a breath if I want to! I’ll do what I want!”), which probably wasn’t a good sign.

For this reason, I’m now enjoying a less structured approach. I literally enjoy plopping down on the sofa, looking outside, and doing nothing. It’s a bit tricky because I can’t quite quiet thoughts like, “Why am I doing this? This is a waste of time,” but I lie there anyway. I put my phone and any books away and let my mind do its thing. Lying there often allows me to notice my body releasing tension, which is such a pleasant feeling. Slowly, my mind also releases a bit, and when I get up, I feel refreshed. It also makes a difference that I feel like I’m doing this because I want to and not because I have to.

I have to say I genuinely enjoy doing nothing! When Jacob tries to tell me something but I’m practicing the Art of Nothing (i.e., chilling on the couch), I simply respond with, “Mmm.” He asks, “Oh, are you doing nothing?” and I say, “Yeah,” with a wide smile on my face. Once, I caught him chuckling. It must be funny seeing me, the one who’s always running around with a to-do list in mind, lounging about and doing nothing.

Have you tried Doing Nothing? How do you like it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo from Matheus Bertelli (Creative Commons license)

How my gastritis acted up when I got pregnant

Over the past couple of months, several people contacted me to ask about my gastritis journey after reading my blog posts on the topic. I’ve repeatedly been surprised by how many people struggle with this chronic condition for years and years. Apparently, it wasn’t just my problem but many people’s problem as well.

(For those who don’t know what gastritis is, it’s an inflammation of the stomach wall. It’s often a precursor or a gentler version of a stomach ulcer. People who have gastritis have intense stomach pain when they’re hungry or if they’ve eaten something spicy, hot, or irritating in some other way. I’ve written extensively about my experience with gastritis here.)

My gastritis had been doing very well (probably about 70-80% better) over the past two years. I could get by with 3-4 meals a day (compared to the 6-7 meals in the past) and only had pain if I got really, really hungry. I often didn’t feel like I had gastritis anymore and felt like a healthy person again.

Pregnancy changed everything

Suddenly, everything changed when I got pregnant. The first two-three weeks before I knew I was pregnant were truly bizarre. I’d wake up in the morning, starving. One weekend, we were visiting a friend in Brussels, and on both Saturday and Sunday I woke up around 7 am. Still tired and extremely hungry, I made my way to the kitchen while my husband and our host were still sleeping. I barely managed to make scrambled eggs without passing out–my blood sugar levels were so low that I was super light-headed. Once I ate my breakfast, I could finally relax and drink my tea, waiting for the others to wake up. By the time we were all ready to go and went for brunch (around 11-12 h), I was happy to eat again.

Once I found out I was pregnant, this ravenous hunger made more sense. At least it seemed like there was a reason for this craziness. But then the nausea hit around week 5, and nothing made sense anymore. I’d eat a meal and be hungry two hours later. Or I’d eat a snack but be starving only an hour later.

Ravenous hunger + gastritis = not great…

Ravenous hunger is typical for pregnancy, but it becomes tricky when coupled with gastritis. It wasn’t that I was simply hungry, but I was also in pain. Apparently, even though I’d been recovering well from my gastritis, these intense hunger pangs were enough to bring it back. I was back to eating 6-7 (small) meals a day, which is recommended when you’re nauseous during pregnancy. But that meant I was back to being stressed about when exactly I’d get hungry again next, whether I’d have enough food, whether I’d be in pain and terribly light-headed, etc.

It was tough. I felt that everything I’d worked towards and achieved health-wise over the past few years had been a waste and now I was back in the throes of dealing with gastritis. I was frustrated by the crazy way my body was acting, and I felt I had no control over it (hello, pregnancy land!).

What used to work didn’t work anymore

Worst of all, the strategies that had helped me in the past didn’t work anymore. I had done very well eating paleo-style meals, emphasizing protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables (I’ve described this in more detail here). But now, in this crazy new pregnancy land, I couldn’t do this anymore.

As an example, one day during week 5 of my pregnancy, I went to have lunch. I opened my lunchbox of chicken thighs and broccoli, a typical lunch for me, as many colleagues can testify. I felt some resistance to the smell, texture, and taste of the food. I wasn’t sure why, but I really wasn’t enjoying it. I managed to finish my lunch, but it wasn’t nice.

The next day, the moment I looked at my chicken and broccoli, I didn’t want to eat them. I stared at them and tried to understand why I suddenly didn’t want to eat this delicious lunch that I had loved before. After a few minutes, I made myself start eating and barely finished my lunch. It was tough.

On the third day, I couldn’t do it. I felt so nauseated that I couldn’t even look at my chicken and broccoli. It turns out, as I found out later, that poultry and broccoli are some of the most common foods that make pregnant women nauseous. Who would have thought!

That day, I got rebellious. I was ravenous, so I went to the canteen and looked for things that I wanted to eat. It was a bit tough because not much seemed appetizing, but I still wanted to eat! Then, my eyes zeroed in on… pumpkin soup! There was this amazingly smelling pumpkin soup! I got two bowls of that soup. Suddenly, the idea of melted cheese in that soup seemed wonderful. I got several slices of gouda cheese and put them in the soup. My gooey, cheesy pumpkin soup seemed like the best thing in the world.

The problem was that pumpkin soup with cheese didn’t keep me full. Two hours later, I was hungry again, looking for the next thing. Nuts and bananas were okay, so I ate that, but bananas do spike my blood sugar, so after an hour or two I was hungry again. Then I ate a protein bar or something like that. Not great, but it got me through the day.

Pregnancy cravings and aversions

Protein really helps with gastritis because it helps me feel and stay full, which means I don’t get stomach pain. But my pregnancy cravings were for sugary or cheesy things, and I didn’t even want to look at meat. Chicken and fish were the worst, but I didn’t want to eat beef either. I tried to get some protein anyway by eating some form of animal protein and covering it with cheese. I also emphasized eggs (scrambled were okay, boiled tasted blah) and had some pea protein shakes as snacks. In terms of vegetables, I had to completely forgo broccoli and beets and instead ate cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and carrots.

It was difficult to make choices that worked well for my gastritis, so I was constantly dealing with ravenous hunger, cravings, aversions, and stomach pain. I also woke up every night around 3-4 am, extremely hungry and in pain. I had nuts (cashews, peeled almonds, or macadamias) next to my bed and ate a handful before even getting out of bed. In the mornings, before I got out of bed, my husband brought me a glass of bone broth with some lemon, which soothed my painful stomach and gave me some energy to get up, while the lemon tasted refreshing. This continued for two months. It was tough.

Then it just stopped

And then, just as suddenly as it had started, it all stopped. Week 13 was my last week of nausea, week 14 was a bit of a transition, and by week 15 it was gone. Such a relief! I felt like a normal person again with reasonable hunger and fullness cues. The gastritis pain also decreased. I was not ravenous and in pain between meals and at night anymore.

By now (at 24 weeks), I’m back to eating my regular way. I eat 3-4 meals a day, emphasizing protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables. I really enjoy fatty things like cheese and avocado, so I eat more of those than before I was pregnant. I’ve also become a fan of fruit (I didn’t care much about fruit in the past), so I eat peaches, cherries, or berries in the evening. Interestingly, I used to crave desserts before I was pregnant, while I don’t have such an interest in them now. I have an ice cream or some dark chocolate once in a while, but that’s kind of it.

I have to say that my gastritis is doing even better now than before I was pregnant. I think it’s because I don’t restrict my food intake now, but rather I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I often feel fine with only 3 meals a day, which I didn’t expect would be possible when pregnant.

Interestingly, pregnant women are often told that the cravings and the ravenous hunger really pick up in the second and third trimester. For me, it was the opposite: I had crazy cravings and hunger during the first trimester, and they died down from the second trimester onward (still waiting to see how the third trimester goes, of course). My weight gain also followed a similar path: I gained some weight in the first trimester, then remained stable in the fourth month (when you’re supposed to actually start gaining weight), and then started gaining gradually from the fifth month onward.

How much of this is due to gastritis?

My story only goes to show how differently pregnant bodies can respond to the massive change of pregnancy. A friend of mine had exactly the opposite where she was so sick during the first trimester that she lost weight. Then, once the second trimester rolled in and the nausea lifted, she got super hungry and gained weight quickly, resulting in a healthy weight for her and her baby.

I had the experience of ravenous hunger during the beginning of pregnancy and a gradual tapering off of hunger as well as of stomach pain as the pregnancy continued. Did my gastritis cause this, or was the increased gastritis pain a result of my changing metabolism and hormones? There’s no way to know, but I’m more likely to think it’s the latter.

That first trimester was a strange and difficult time for me, and I think that the gastritis pain was one of the consequences of all the changes going on. Unfortunately, adding irritated gastritis to the already challenging mix of early pregnancy symptoms made things more difficult but not unbearable. The little one and I made it through, and we’re doing fine now. I’m so glad that that chapter is over, and I hope it doesn’t return later in pregnancy. Bye bye, first trimester! See you in the next pregnancy! (Nooooooo…… Can’t I just skip the first trimester? :S)

Have you had a tough first trimester? Or a difficult stomach/gut condition? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.