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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How To Make A Person You Love Feel Loved

A couple weeks ago, my husband was paying the toll bill, and I apologized to him that it was much higher than usual because I had taken the toll road several times that month to make sure I wasn't late for class. We are financially fairly comfortable, but we have recently had several car issues, and our budget is pretty tight right now. 



His response inspired me to write this.

"Love, it's a lot less expensive for you to take the toll road every day if you need to than for us to pay for you to have to re-take those classes. Especially with how hard that would be on you emotionally. Take it if you need to & we'll finish this semester."

So much wisdom for such a young man. His response to my apology was both rational and incredibly empathetic. I am just 50 days from my last day of graduate school, (I like to think my last day of school ever), and the added pressure of knowing how stressful and complicated it would be for me to drop or flunk a class this semester, pushing back my graduation and forcing me to pay twice for a class, has been extremely difficult.

I feel my husband had every right to be a bit annoyed with me, or to at least appreciate my apology, for spending money outside our budget on something that is technically optional. The degree of thought that had to go in to his response seems to me to have been happening along the way, so that in the moment, he was able to instantly consider my needs and the bigger picture, and just be incredibly understanding of what that expensive little shortcut meant to me.

So I just want to say this. A truly solid, positive relationship- any relationship, not just marriage- is a lot easier when your logic accounts for the less tangible needs of the other in the relationship. It's been 2 weeks and I can't get this interaction out of my head because I realized in that moment that I felt understood, taken care of, and completely safe to care for myself in this high pressure season of life. 

If you are in a relationship, give yourself time and opportunity to think about what the other is going through in life outside your time with them. Take the time to empathize and think about how they may be feeling at the end of their workday, or when they haven't gotten to do that thing that makes them feel good in a long time. Just thinking about this stuff when you have a chance will give you the same wisdom in the instant you'll need it someday. And when it does come up, that person will feel so loved by you. 100% worth the effort.

(P.S. This conversation actually happened during the week of our 3rd anniversary, and I just gotta brag and say that my husband is clearly nailing it.)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dear Black Friends: What would you have me do?

I'm aware my choice of title may come across as defensive, but it isn't.

I am increasingly aware and deeply troubled by racism.

I have witnessed, and been infuriated by, institutional racism, and I have seen white privilege at play. One example that I really hit close to home was in my 9 months counseling at the homeless shelter, I saw white men barely sober a few months given opportunity after opportunity, regarded as tragic stories of unfulfilled potential, while black men 10 years sober with proven work ethic were overlooked because they were treated as though their history was a reflection of their choices, and ultimately their character.I do not feel that those experiencing white privilege should lose those privileges, I feel that those privileges are a model for what should be available to everyone. Every person should be seen for the potential they have yet to fulfill.

But as I awaken to the breadth and extent of racism that continues to be present in our culture, I am horrified to realize that the position I am in at this point is that of bystander.

The role I have been playing in this conversation has been too close to those situations where a murder takes place on a street overlooked by dozens of windows, where nobody called the police, and nobody came to help.

I am really sorry.

We all hear stories of that sort of thing happening and think "if I had been there I would have helped!" 

But here so many of us are, watching through the window or drowning out the ruckus, thinking "Well, I'm not the one committing the crime, and I'm not the victim, so what could I possibly do about it? I'm sure someone else better qualified will come along and intervene."

I do not want to be that. I am repulsed by the thought that I have done that. 

I am heartbroken for the harm racism is inflicting on my brothers and sisters, an I am horrified at my own apparent complacence about it. It is not enough for me to love you, and to respect you and your background and recognize that you are in no way less valuable than anyone else because of the color of your skin.

But I realized, too, that I do not know how best to leverage my white voice to help you. I will not be so arrogant as to believe that I could possibly be in a position to offer a solution to a crime that does not threaten me.

The best I can be is a tool or a megaphone in your hands, black friends. I know that some of my role is to speak on your behalf to those too racist to listen to you directly.

But beyond that, and I know that there is a lot beyond that, I do not know what to do.

So I pose the question to you, in a posture of genuine submission:

How best can I back you up?

What would you have me do?



Thursday, January 5, 2017

Millennials & the Malignancy of "Maybe"

I've been noticing this growing, hard-to-pin-down frustration in myself and many of my friends over the last decade. We like to blame our phase of life for most of it, I think; being busy and over-committed is just a part of young adulthood, isn't it?

Here's my take on it, though. The bulk of our frustration stems from one little bitty thing:



(The Maybe Button)

I remember when Facebook was new and events were starting to pick up popularity, we all thought this was such a great thing! It was this polite way to RSVP when we weren't sure if we'd be able to make it; rather than turning down something we wanted to do because we couldn't make a solid commitment, or saying "yes" to save our spot but looking like a flake when it didn't work out, we had this awesome way to show our intentions! The invitation, the event, and in turn its sender are important to us, we desire to attend, but we are also not flakes, and wouldn't dare insult you by committing only to stand you up.

In reality, how this option has played out over the last 10+ years is that we're simultaneously incapable of fully committing to ANYTHING and OVERcommitted!

To quote my brilliant husband, "It's weird how our sincere efforts to be as nice as possible result in a lot of frustration and exhaustion"

That's exactly what has happened. And it's not just those of us making these wishy-washy non-committments who are affected. It's exhausting to give or receive "Maybe." 

There are jokes that maybe means no (except about 30% of the time when it really means maybe), and No is the new "Screw You."

So there's this new passive aggressive decibel of communication now where we worry about giving a sincere "no" without leaving a note to explain our reasons, and hoping the reasons we give sound valid enough without coming across as too defensive and therefore insincere, and we worry about giving a solid "yes" because we fear something better, more appealing, more interesting, or with people we like more popping up between the date of RSVP and the actual event. This is called FOMO- Fear Of Missing Out

We didn't have FOMO nearly as much back when things either popped up spontaneously through word of mouth invitations at work or school, or long-in-advance mailed paper invitations with enough time to account for the post office both ways, and RSVP cards with only TWO options!

So because we are all both the initiators and the respondents to invitations in this generation, we find ourselves exhausted. We're overwhelmed with options, events, hundreds and thousands of "friends" at our fingertips, all making us feel like we should feel more connected with all these options, yet feeling just busy and unknown.

Then there's that other, really big part of the frustration. We constantly feel like everyone we are connected with also has FOMO, and we in turn feel as though we are endlessly fighting to win a contest against an unknown number of people and passions for our friends' time and energy.

This can make us wonder if that "maybe" is our friend hoping something better than us could still come along, if perhaps we are the backup plan, the last resort. It can also make us feel like we didn't "make the cut" whenever someone turns that maybe into a no for anything less than a funeral.

Then there's just matters of courtesy. That darn Maybe button has caused us to feel completely at ease to not decide WHAT we're going to do until the last moment, sometimes even after the event has started if it's acceptable to show up late. What a chaotic existence! We've been acculturated to believe that this is a LUXURY! We've learned the delusion that not having to know what we're doing next week, tomorrow, even later tonight is empowering us against our constant feelings of busy-ness and overcommitment.

Well I'm here to tell you that we are NOT empowering ourselves or anyone else when we say Maybe.

We aren't being kind, or polite, softening the blow of a rejection or making someone feel like they matter

We're telling our friends they're on our list, but we haven't decided how high up yet.

We're leaving them in limbo, rejecting or "maybe-ing" their own friends who fall lower on their list than ourselves until we deign to give them a solid answer.

We're forcing them to pester us and risk annoying us to get a clear confirmation so that they don't figure out when half the day is gone that they've been blown off, and we're robbing them of being able to feel hurt or offended because we never actually committed in the first place.

We are reserving seats in our friends' lives over and over and over, and leaving them empty time after time, only to request another reservation to "make up for it".

...and we need to stop.

WE NEED TO STOP!

We are ALL guilty of participating in both sides of this sick, frustrating, flaky dance and it is ruining our relationships, and metastasizing into every other part of our lives.

So how can we fix this?

"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'. For whatever is more than these is from the  evil one."

I suspect Jesus may have anticipated this Millennial generation and our internet maybes when he said this in Matthew 5:37. And regardless of your religious affiliations or lack thereof, you can't deny that this little chunk of advice is WISDOM. 

And as far as I can tell, that really is the answer; think about it- if we stop with the "maybes" and commit to a yes or a no in all things, we can still change our minds, but we will have a better grasp on LIFE!

If we start saying YES or NO, we will realize how many things we try to juggle, how we are becoming over-committed. When we say Maybe, we try to make it to several things just for a bit, and ultimately enjoy none of them- it's like the opening scene of 27 Dresses every dadgum weekend.

And for myself, I would rather receive a 5 solid "No"s in a row and one TRUE "Yes" than 6 "Maybes" and 6 times I can't count on anything.


And once you've conquered the Maybes, you might find this helpful:



Monday, July 11, 2016

How To Make A Difference In An Unjust World (& How Not To)

It seems to me that with the rampant growth of Social Media activity, Slacktivism is also at an all time high. Prior to the upsurge of shared open letters and judgey memes, I think slacktivism was already common in the form of protest. Now stay with me please! I'll explain.

While there's nothing wrong with simply doing these things to make it known which side of a debate you personally identify with (that's why I do it from time to time), I feel like if changing one's profile photo in solidarity or clicking "share" on someone else's well stated opinions is say (generously) 0.5% effective in convincing others to consider alternative perspectives, then showing up for a protest in this decade* is maybe 1% effective, if that. 

In this day and age, it's needlessly dangerous to gather large crowds of people representing a specific, often oppressed demographic into a single public space. The best case scenario is that the participants leave safely and feel like they were a part of something important. They haven't changed ANYTHING. They just got to take their opinions out of their computer chair and feel like they've done something. 

The alternatives to this scenario are that it creates an opportunity for crazies/radicals/people who simply like to make trouble to turn what may have been intended and initially organized as a peaceful statement into a riot. I don't think protests are organized with the intent or expectation of riots, nor do I think the majority of participants intend to be rowdy, but it's like giving an open call to bring gasoline to a certain place and hoping no arsonists show up. The worst case is scenarios like the events in Dallas that inspired this post, that it's like gathering fish into a barrel with targets on their backs. We may not like to admit it, we may disagree on how to label it, but we live in a world where people senselessly take lives en masse, particularly when it will create a media frenzy.

And for what? So people watching will know a cause is important? 

Frankly, we do have internet now. We can make our numbers felt through petitions etc with as much efficacy and none of the risk. 

Even so, I believe that none of these measures will make much real difference to whatever the problem.

So what will?

DO.

The only way to fix a corrupt system is to do so from the INSIDE.

Do you believe that the United States Police forces are corrupt &/or full of racist people you don't trust to carry a gun?

Then BECOME A POLICE OFFICER and don't be racist, corrupt, or trigger happy. Too old? Encourage your children, or your grandchildren, or your nieces, nephews, friends' kids, to grow up to work in law enforcement, and not to be racist. Donate funds or organize classes for your city to educate current law enforcement in sociology and racial studies. Organize events that can encourage positive interactions and experiences between members of oppressed people groups and their oppressors, so that officers have an opportunity to genuinely rewrite the script in their minds by way of positive, genuine personal experience.

The only way we can fix a corrupted population of people is to flood it with good people.

Do you believe some of the tragic shooting incidents involving police were exacerbated by people refusing to listen or comply to orders given by an authority?

Then teach your children to respect authority figures. MODEL that respect by respecting them yourself. If you are of a demographic which is categorically socialized not to fear the law but to rely on it to protect you, then you better get out of your house, join a big brother/big sister program, and instill that respect into some kids who haven't had that opportunity. If nothing else, teach your children to comply when the person they're disagreeing with has a gun, and then educate them on how to pursue justice after the fact- there are dash cams and body cams, if you feel your rights are being unlawfully infringed upon, DON'T be mouthy and insolent and scream in their face, don't resist, and no matter how right you are, DON'T FIGHT SOMEONE WHO IS ARMED FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE! Get the organizations that would defend you in death to help you defend yourself IN COURT with your heart still beating.

And ALL of you- how about instead of waiting to give money to a fund for the family of someone who dies unjustly, you give money now to a fund for the legal defense team of someone unjustly accused of a crime based on their demographic status?

Are you Pro-Life?

Then put down the picket signs and go prepare your hearts and your homes to adopt kids that are products of rape, or unexpected teen pregnancy, or unwelcome adult pregnancy. Be ready to take in kiddos with birth defects & drug addictions. Make space in your homes or financially support organizations that provide housing for girls who are kicked out of their homes for being pregnant. Organize clinics and meetings where families can be counseled through the challenges of unexpected pregnancy and learn forgiveness, acceptance, and supporting their own. 

The only way we can change our culture is to create a safe, welcoming place for the children of unwanted pregnancies.

Are you Pro-choice in part because you believe the foster system is so corrupt and full of greedy, neglectful people that you think it would be better in the long run to abort a child than to risk subjecting it to such a life?

Then get trained, open your homes, and become good foster parents. You're smart enough and good enough to identify a problem exists, so be smart enough and good enough to do something about it. 

The only way to fix a corrupt system is to flood it with good people.

Are you sick of voting for the lesser of two evils, but you do it anyway because you feel your vote will be wasted if you don't vote for one of the front runners?

Then become a politician and don't be corrupt. Raise your children to have an interest and understanding of politics, and teach them not to be corrupt. Most of all, get involved at the lowest levels- those people running for higher office have been climbing the ladder for a long time. If you pay attention to mayoral and governor elections, local politics and congress, we could, hypothetically, begin to weed out the baddies before they ever start climbing.

The only way to bring about change is to stop doing things as they've always been done. If you think there's any other way than this, you are living the definition of insanity.

I could go on and on with examples such as homelessness, poverty, water poverty, drug addiction, etc- in fact some of these are my own personal pet causes, but you should get the idea by now.

The when a corruption is systemic, it's not just this giant crap factory that you can only either yell at pointlessly, burn down completely, or just accept. 




The difference between that which is corrupt and that which is not is the proportion of non-corrupt individuals to those who are corrupt inside that system. It ultimately comes down to a tip of the scales. And the only way to change which way a scale tips is to add weight to the side you prefer. 

So are you tired of the world as it is? Wishing for change? Discouraged? Then DO. You don't have to stop all the reposts and demonstrations, but back them up. And if you must demonstrate, please be wise, be safe, and don't be afraid to leave if it gets ugly.


*I am not denying the efficacy of protest as a real society changing tool at various times in history- I am saying we have outgrown its efficacy. It's not a good method for this generation.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Getting Rid Of The Meantimes

I got married at age 26.

Most of my readers consider that a pretty reasonable, appropriate age to get married. I admit, though, for several years I would have thought it about 3-4 years too late.

I wasn't exceptionally impatient about finding a husband, or getting married, but I had an expectation that it was inevitable. You see, I have a healthy, strong body, nice, wide hips, and a strong, long-term desire to have lots of kids. So obviously, God made me to be a mother- it only makes sense that He'd give those kids a dad.

This wasn't, of course, the only reason I wanted to get married- not by a long shot- but it was the source of my certainty that I would get married. God wouldn't want to waste such excellent mothering material.

Then about 2 years before I met the man I am now married to, around age 24, I had an epiphany of contentment. I came to this realization through a combination of two things. First, God was speaking to me through the Epistles of Paul. Second, I was getting super annoyed with some of my friends. (read: acquaintances)

See, I had several friends who had the exact same mentality as me. The desire of their heart was to have a husband, or to have children, so obviously that was what God had in mind for them. 

Why would God give us a deep, burning desire for something if He wasn't intending to give it to us?

But I noticed that as we moved away from college graduation age, some of my friends had... slowed their lives to a crawl. They didn't put any serious thought into what they might be doing in 5 or 10 years if they didn't get married, because such a scenario would be unacceptable. A few of them were a bit older than me, and were getting impatient and frustrated because they felt the time when they had to be independently responsible for their lives, without the benefit of partners to share their burdens with, should have passed by now.


I found myself getting annoyed with their attitudes, their sense of entitlement about marriage, and their naive assumption that they were owed husbands because they wanted them. I saw it as irresponsible, unwise to put oneself in a position where focus on something that is not a guarantee blocks out consideration of the alternatives. I also saw it as dangerous, making them vulnerable to settle for someone because the idol of marriage was more important than being alone longer in order to wait for someone right.

And then I realized I was acting the same way. I was just as certain and confident that eventually, probably soon, I would meet someone. After all, if I want to have 5-7 kids and not have minors in my house at retirement age, I had better get started soon! I wasn't being as verbal about it as some of the people in my circle, but I absolutely assumed it was something I was guaranteed. The only difference between myself and those friends was time. The time between when I had expected to meet my husband and this revelation was brief, so I wasn't quite impatient yet. I had only just entered my unexpected "waiting period" until wifehood.

God started speaking to me through 1 Corinthians 7:7-9
"I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion."

I realized, much to my chagrin, that I actually felt I could control myself. I didn't consider celibacy an impossible thing, and while I was a normal, healthy 24 year old with normal, healthy drives, "passion" was not a major force in my desire to be married. I realized that it might possibly be God's plan for me to remain single.

The implications of this for my life were staggering. I realized how much of my attitude was centered around my assumption that soon enough, everything in my life would change, and I would be able to factor in another person to make decisions about my future, handle money, and glorify God through the raising of a cluster of little Christian Warriors from scratch. 

I had to determine what about my life needed to change if I decided then and there never to marry. What about my behavior and career and goals would be different if I stopped factoring in the possibility of a husband?

That was when I realized I had already begun to mentally settle into the meantime. I stopped. I made my own choices about my career based on what I could actually see myself doing forever to actually support myself. I dared to dream about and get excited about the prospect of being single and having the freedom to change my course at will, enjoy solitude, be undistracted in the pursuit of my faith, and minister to other singles.

I still dated, sure- I wasn't against marriage if God so chose. But it no longer defined my life as a single person as a waiting room for the next stage of life. Single adulthood was a stage of life- possibly my last. A unique, fun, liberating, awesome stage that allowed me to be in a 1 on 1 relationship with my true Beloved.

Fast Forward a few years. I met my husband under incredibly... serendipitous circumstances. It has been evident from the first moment I saw him that God truly brought us together, saved us for each other, prepared us for one another. We got married.

Now if you don't usually like my TMI style you probably won't love the rest of this post, but it's important. I want people to learn from my experiences to spare them their own folly.

My husband and I were on the same page about having a big family from the beginning. I won't get too deep into our specific theology here, but we took a "Catholic" approach to birth control from the beginning of our marriage. We felt if God really wanted to give us a baby, he would- whether we tried to stop him or not.

Additionally I will own that at almost 27 years old, I was already a little impatient to start having kids- if I had married at 23, I could have had like 3 kids by now!

And so began my new meantime. How wasteful was I? To become so wrapped up in the next "promised" (definitely never promised) stage of motherhood that I viewed my time alone with my brand new, AMAZING husband as a consolation prize until I got pregnant?

I was anxious and frustrated, and impatient for several reasons I won't specify here. I was desperate to prove to myself and to the world that everything was healthy here- no problems getting pregnant! After all, the implications of infertility would throw a complete wrench in my only plan for married life. Then I caught myself.

How in the world could I have learned so little from my time as a single adult? Hadn't I learned better than to only plan the future around people who hadn't arrived yet and had no guarantee of ever coming?

Why did I have such a sense of entitlement about pregnancy, anyway? Just because my body is healthy, I'm automatically owed an opportunity to use it? Just because I had the organs for sex didn't mean I was owed an opportunity to use them, either!

The truth is, once I was willing to acknowledge it, that we are not promised anything, I felt free; true contentment.

Jesus was celibate. He didn't have any children of his own. He LOVED kids. But that wasn't what God had in mind for his ministry. Paul, as far as we know, was single, and he additionally had a "thorn in his side". He never indicated that he felt entitled not to feel pain- he never let it get in the way of his ministry. In fact, his pain has since ministered to so many others who read of his faith in the face of that pain when they are coping with their own. And I know Paul had a deep, permeating desire not to be in pain. 

It turns out, sometimes God allows us to have desire so that we may learn from being deprived. 

It turns out, desire and want can serve a different function in God's purpose than telling us what we're entitled to.

I still have a deep, "burning passion" for motherhood. I have a specific desire to experience pregnancy that is difficult to put into words. And I am young- I know this. 20 months is really not long at all for a person to have been "trying" to get pregnant without success. I have not given up hope, but it's about time I give up the meantime.

The stage I am in could be the last stage I am ever in. And what a beautiful stage it is! How utterly, unbelieveably wasteful for me to treat it like it's just a waiting room for me to impatiently focus on what lies beyond. 



My husband and I are open to other options, too- adoption and foster care are on our minds. But even these are not simple or guaranteed. I have learned, and been scolded by my younger, single, content self, that to covet, even that which is good, is to be entitled and ungrateful

So let me ask you, and seriously I encourage you to think about it- write down the answers!

What stage of life are you in right now? 

Do you covet the "next" or a "previous" stage, or even a missed one? 

What blessings of your current situation are you ignoring in your belief that you are "owed" whatever it is you are "missing"?

What opportunities do you have in this stage that you wouldn't or won't have in any other?

Are you taking advantage of them?

Why not?




(BTW Google Image search "Purgatory" and most of the images that pop up are people reaching up toward a heaven full of babies- hilarious)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pumpkin Paradise: Something New for the Season

Dear Suzy,

I love pumpkin flavored things, so of course this is my favorite season! Still, I find that after more years than I'll own of eating all the traditional fall desserts, I am sick of classic pumpkin pie! I know it's a terrible thing for a pumpkin lover such as myself to say, but I just think it could be... jazzed up a bit, don't you? I'd ask for a pumpkin cheesecake recipe, but cheesecake is so very heavy! What can I make this year to spice things up?
Pumpkin'd Out,
Mrs. Spratt

Dear Mrs. Spratt,

I have the perfect recipe for you! It's called "Chai Cheesecake Pumpkin Pie" and it's one of my original recipes. 

This pie can be and has been multiplied to serve large groups.
This is a hotel pan serving about 40.

It has everything you love about pumpkin cheesecake without being quite so heavy. It does include both weight measurements and volume measurements, so a scale is useful. If you don't have a scale, there are some excellent weight-to-volume converters on google to help you convert it easily. I really like this one. I hope you enjoy! I encourage all of my readers who try this recipe to post photos of their results in the comments- I love to see them!

Chai Cheesecake Pumpkin Pie
        Yield: 2 pies

Filling:
1#2oz cream cheese, SOFT 17oz sugar .5oz corn starch 10oz sour cream 3 chai tea bags put through a strainer to get the big pieces out 15oz Pumpkin puree 5 eggs 1.5 tsp vanilla 1 can evaporated milk

Crust: 8 Graham crackers .5 box club crackers 2 sticks butter 4 tbsp sugar

Instructions:
- First combine sugar and corn starch in a sifter/strainer, sift into a mixer bowl and mix well - Add soft cream cheese and mix at medium power. - Scrape whole bowl and mix again - Scrape whole bowl and mix again - Scrape whole bowl and mix again (seriously all 3 times, it's super important- trust me!) - Scrape bowl well and add sour cream - Mix @ half power - Scrape bowl well
- Add chai spices and pumpkin puree and mix - Scrape bowl completely and mix again - Add eggs one at a time while mixing - Add evaporated milk and vanilla while mixing - Pulverize the crackers into crumbs - Melt butter - Pour sugar and butter into crumbs and mix well - Smooth crust mix into two pie pans - Par bake crusts for 5 minutes at 325 - Pour filling into crusts - Place pans into a cookie sheet and place the cookie sheet into the oven (preheated at 325) - Pour hot water from a pitcher or liquid measuring cup into cookie sheet so that shallow water covers the whole surface without splashing into the pies - Bake pies until just barely jiggley in the center - Pull out pies, leave cookie sheet - When oven is cooled, remove pan of water - Cool pies for about an hour, chill overnight.

You may be wondering why on earth you need to scrape the bowl so many times. Simply, the biggest difference between a perfect cream cheese dessert (particularly cheesecake) and an... amateur one... is that a perfect cream cheese dessert has no spots, specks, chunks or blobs of white when you cut into it. The more you scrape and re-mix, the more likely you are to have it come out perfect. Especially with a pumpkin pie with orange filling, those white specks of cream cheese are nobody's friend.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How to Not Starve

Dear Suzy,

I want to cook at home more, but when I do, the same thing always happens: I find a recipe, get excited about it, go and buy the full size packages of each ingredient on the list, and use one tablespoon here, 2 of the 10 chicken breasts there... then my pantry is full of an assortment of ingredients that only work together in one recipe that I know how to make. How can I more intelligently stock my pantry with items that I can use up in a variety of ways, in a timely manner, without boring my family? Are there any items that I should always keep in the pantry?

Hungry,
Pod

Dear Pod,

I have seen so many people with the same conundrum. You're on the right track, so I'll let you in on a trick I discovered several years ago: 

Stock your pantry well with versatile ingredients, and you will learn how to improvise and adjust recipes. Stock your pantry with the odds and ends from specific recipes, throw a lot away every few weeks.

So what staples should you always keep in your pantry? Here is the simple list, and I'll explain in more depth below for those who want more information:

  • Onions
  • Dried Herbs & Spices
  • Lemons & Limes
  • Potatoes/Sweet Potatoes
  • Carrots & Celery
  • Vinegar (Basalmic & Apple Cider)
  • Oil
  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Protein
  • Cooking Wine
  • Peanut Butter
  • Baking Essentials:
    • All Purpose Flour
    • White Sugar
    • Brown sugar
    • Baking soda
    • Baking powder
    • Salt
    • Chocolate chips
    • butter
    • eggs (again)
  • Onions - 
    • I usually keep a few yellow onions (I prefer them because they're a little sweeter and a little milder, you use what you like) because they keep for a long time
    • These onions are great because if you want to add depth to the flavor of ANYTHING, they will provide that. Quarter one up and toss it into a crock pot with your chicken, or roast it in a pan with other veggies and tubers with a little basalmic vinegar on top for an amazing side dish.
    • Then every few months I take an hour or so to dice and mince up several large onions, sautee them in butter until they're caramelized, let them cool, and them put them into either an ice cube tray to freeze in individual portions, or just freeze it all in a ziplock baggie and break off pieces as you need them. This is a super quick and useful source
      • This can be used to cook with, but can also be used as a filling for stuffed meats, kolaches, or a spread for sandwiches. (My favorite filling is just caramelized onions and asiago cheese)
    • An alternative if you don't want to be bothered with chopping onions is to keep a large container of dried, minced onion in your pantry, and just rehydrate about 2 tablespoons in a quarter cup of warm water for about 10 minutes. Then they're ready to cook with! This works great in sauces, because the mince is so fine.
  • Dried Herbs and spices 
    • Herbs
      • Basil
      • Parsley
      • thyme
      • rosemary
    • Spices
      • Black pepper
      • Salt
      • cayenne/chili pepper
      • red pepper flakes (if you like things spicy)
      • cinnamon
      • nutmeg
      • Taco seasoning (makes for adding an easy mexican flair)
      • Garlic powder
    • My personal favorites:
      • Poultry seasoning
      • Herbs d' Province
  • Lemons & at least 1 lime
    • Adding a dash of lemon juice to almost any dish will add brightness and acidity. If what you are making is tropical, central american, or latin in theme, lime will enhance that flavor profile.
    • The best part is, these citrus fruits last a while, so they aren't going to go bad if it takes you a week to use them. And if you don't get around to cooking with them, you can always slice them up and use them in your water!
  • Potatoes/Sweet Potatoes
    • These are a quick, easy side dish whether you bake them, microwave them, chop and roast them, or sautee them in a skillet with salt and paprika
  • Carrots & Celery
    • These are an awesome nutritional and flavoring supplement to stretch any meal, enhance its nutritional impact, and magnify the flavor. Just because it's not a typical ingredient in whatever you're making doesn't mean you can't use carrots or celery in pretty much any meal if you need to use them up. When I roast a chicken in my crock pot, I always add carrots and celery, even if I make it "mexican" by adding a can of Rotel, lime, and taco seasoning. By the time the chicken is roasted, the carrots are flavorful and soft.
  • Vinegar
    • Basalmic
      • This can be added to roasted veggies for an excellent dimension of flavor
      • It can also be added to a sauce for a bit of sweetness
      • obviously a great staple in your pantry if you ever need salad dressing and don't have any- simply combine with olive or canola oil and herbs, maybe even mustard, and you've got a simple dressing for any salad.
    • Apple Cider
      • This is a great substitute if you ever forget or run out of your lemons or other citrus ingredients in a recipe. It does have a strong flavor, so be gentle when substituting it.
      • Also an excellent item to have in your kitchen in case of minor burns! just pour it over the burn, or soak a paper towel in it and dab at the burn, it will give you relief. White vinegar or even wine vinegar will have the same effect.
      • Great for quick sanitation and cleanup. If you don't like to use harsh chemicals when cleaning out your cabinets, you can combine this vinegar with water and spray them down and give them a wipe
  • Oil
    • I prefer to have olive oil available for savory cooking, but it can be expensive. In most cases, canola oil will be a sufficient substitute unless you're going to be dipping bread in it or something
    • The other advantage to canola oil as opposed to olive oil is that if you find you need oil for baking, you won't have to make an extra trip to the store! If you can have both, though, I recommend it
    • There is a huge trend for Coconut Oil right now. If this is your favorite thing, go for it. I personally find that it has enough of its own flavor I limit what I use in, because it starts to make everything you cook taste overly familiar and similar. Particularly when it's the oil you're cooking or dressing other foods with, be mindful of strong flavors. Also remember that when you are cooking for large groups, there are coconut allergies out there, so label it well.
  • Eggs
    • These are always a kitchen essential, because they play a huge part in all kinds of meals, baking, etc.
    • You can add eggs to most recipes when you are low on protein and trying to stretch two chicken breasts between 4 people, or you want to make a stir-fry or a salad a bit heartier
    • Eggs also provide a vessel for disposing of almost any other ingredient. Serve a fritatta, omelette, "benedict", or add a gooey fried egg to a sandwich.
  • Protein
    • I am on a budget, so my staples are frozen chicken and canned tuna. You can determine for yourself what you will be most comfortable eating regularly, whether that's ground beef, frozen fish, or tofu. The important thing is to have a stock of frozen or canned protein on hand for those days when you don't have the time or energy to shop for fresh meat.
  • Bread
  • Peanut Butter
    • You can use this in a sauce with soy sauce and garlic, as well as sandwiches, stuffed french toast, or baking
  • Cooking Wine
    • This is great to have on hand for any sauce, roast, even stir-fry! Wine adds depth and the alcohol cooks out, so it's safe to serve any age.
    • You can throw the butter or oil and onions listed above into a skillet, then add half a bottle of wine and cook until it boils for at least 5 minutes for a quick sauce that'll make everyone think you're an amazing chef, without any grocery trips for special ingredients.
  • Baking Ingredients:
    • If you bake much, there are some essentials you MUST keep readily on hand for unplanned baking escapades:
      • All Purpose Flour
      • White Sugar
      • Brown sugar
      • Baking soda
      • Baking powder
      • Salt
      • Chocolate chips (I recommend Ghirardelli 60%)
      • butter
      • eggs (again)
    • The above listed essentials should get you through any major baking bind.
These essentials should set you up for success in any culinary adventures that might await you. 

Did i miss anything? Please share YOUR favorite pantry staples in the commwents! If you have any questions about cooking or anything else, please click the "email me" button on the right side of the page and send me a question!