Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How to Make Eating In More Like Eating Out

Spicing Up Eating In

My husband and son are amazing cooks and I've been a SAHM for years off and on, and as a result we've always eaten most of our meals at home. When we moved to Fiji we didn't really have much choice as the options for eating out were somewhat limited. The chief difference between meals at home "Before" and meals at home now is we don't really have a choice now. It's really interesting how putting something out of reach makes it all the more desirable, too. Here are a couple of ideas to make eating in just as good an experience as it is for your wallet and waistline.

The first thing to ask yourself is "Why do I want to eat out anyway?" I know exactly why I want to eat out!
  • No shopping for food (shopping in Fiji is a WHOLE other blog post!) 
  • No prepping food
  • No schlepping the food (to the dining room table and back to the sink)
  • No cleanup
  • Wait Staff!
  • Interaction with friends
  • Distractions for the kids
  • Variety in the dishes and in the meal (Appetizers! Everyone gets their favorites! Desserts!)
Whew! That's a tall order for a dinner at home. Never fear, though, it can be achieved.

The Meal: There are a couple of things that you can't get away from: If you're going to eat a homemade meal at home, you're going to have to shop, prep, and schlep the food some. You can cut down on this step by planning to serve a meal you've prepared earlier in the day or earlier in the week. In fact, if you're a fan of Once A Month Cooking (freezer cooking), you may have prepped the meal a whole month ago. Using a slow cooker is another way to cut down some on the meal prep so you can focus on your day instead of on the stove.  I'll mention cooking circles later in this article as a way of adding variety to your meals.

Plate the Food in the Kitchen: Of course we're used to placing all the serving dishes on the table and passing them around, but chances are you have a pretty good idea how much everyone is going to take. Go ahead and plate the food before it leaves the kitchen. This will also result in less to clear away from the table after the meal.

Hire a Waiter: Kids love to role play, and giving them the role of waiter for a night may be all you need to give your tootsies a rest for the evening. If they're too young or if you'd like to keep the family gathered around the table for the meal, have a waiter's station set up near the dining room table. This can be a card table put up just for the night, or you can use the kitchen counter. At the waiter's station have a pitcher of water, extra napkins, silverware, and anything else that usually has you popping up and down like Jack in the Box during dinner.

A Table Full of Friends: It's true, it is easier to decide with friends to head for the nearest restaurant after the rugby sevens game. Having said that, it's much more rewarding to have everyone over for dinner instead. There's no check to worry about splitting at the end of the meal, there's no fisheye from the waiter when you're lingering over dessert at the end of the evening. What this does take is planning. You can plan the entire meal in advance and set a date to get together, or if you issued an impromptu invitation you can stretch a meal by adding a quick soup or salad and more side dishes. Soups are really easy to make in bulk and freeze, my go-to bagged salads aren't an option here in Fiji but may be an option where you are.

Interaction or Distraction? One of the biggest benefits to having the whole family at the table is the relationships it builds, but sometimes after both of you have been at home all day long the last thing you want is to interact more. Enter the board game, the book of puzzles, the coloring book, whatever you think would distract your family members while still allowing you to interact. I'm a personal fan of board games over dinner because the pause for turns keeps everyone involved while the game keeps your mind off more pressing issues, like the lack of job, job interviews, bills, etc. If you want to spend some quality time with your spouse, letting the kids read or play with a book of puzzles or a coloring book is a good way to distract them while the two of you talk. I don't like glowing screens or battery operated gizmos and gadgets at the table though. They are a little too effective at distracting kids.

Variety: What does a regular meal look like at your house?  Is it a one-pot dinner?  Is it one meat and two vegetables? Time to change it up a little bit.  The easiest thing to do is add courses to the meal. Start with a soup, salad, or an easy appetizer.  Plan to serve dessert and get some mint to garnish even the simplest after dinner sweet.  If you love lingering over coffee at a restaurant, preload the coffee press before dinner and have one of the kids add boiling water as soon as you start cleanup.

Another way to add variety to your meals is to join a cooking circle.  Different cooking clubs operate in different ways, but in general you prepare one meal in bulk, package it, and freeze it.  Keep one prepped meal for yourself and exchange the other prepacked meal with the members of your cooking circle.  You get three new to you homemade takeout meals that can be thawed out and served any time.  Eating out at home could be a great time to serve that cooking circle meal.

Have a potluck: invite everyone you know over or just a select few, have everyone bring a different dish! Presto variety-o, cue the conversations, the kids have new friends to play with, everybody wins!

More Ways to Spice It Up:
  • Dress Up - If you wouldn't get groceries in what you're wearing you probably don't need to be sitting down to the table for an Eating Out Dinner In.  You will feel better if you take a quick minute to change into something that you feel good in. 
  • Clean up - Either clean as you make the meal or fill the sink with hot soapy water and do a quick rinse when dishes come off the table. That way once the meal is done there's little or no work to do, just like when you eat out. If you're one of the lucky ones in Fiji to have a dishwasher, make sure it's empty before dinner and then fill it up after the meal, turn it on before you go to bed. 
  • Change the lighting - Ever notice that when the lower the lighting at a restaurant the higher the bill?  You can recreate some of that high priced atmosphere at home by pulling out the candles, or unscrewing a light bulb or two.  
  • Add music - Play the radio or turn the stereo up loud enough so you can hear it at the table
  • Eat Outside - Ok, it's September in the Southern Hemisphere here and our days have been chilly and wet, so I'm not a huge fan of this one right now, but once it warms up you can bet I'm going to set up the back porch like an outdoor cafe.  
What would you do to make an evening in as much or more fun as an evening out?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

I want to help but I don't want to intrude

How to Help a Friend That's Having Trouble

"We’ve created new “family” in the way of friends who are also geographical orphans, but there is still a pause that happens before we think about imposing on a friend. Some of these “family” friendships are new and possibly tenuous relationships that may only exist because we are all in the same boat. Without a deeper connection, it is easy to overstep boundaries and so, in most cases, we choose not to impose. We’d rather be alone and keep those friendships rather than potentially lose our only sources of local support. We need to save those requests in case of an emergency; not for a daily pick-me-up." 

I recently read this passage on an expat blog Knocked Up Abroad and it's really resonated for me. I also found these two articles very useful:

On Depression: For Many, Life as an Accompanying Spouse Comes at a Great Cost
General Preparation for Life Abroad: The 9 Essential Questions that Every Expat Partner Must Ask

Here are some tips that I figured I'd pass on based on my own experiences being unemployed, and experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (thankfully not a problem here!)

While there are a lot of ways you may have heard about helping an unemployed friend out professionally (recommending your friend on, proofreading resumes and cover letters, forwarding job leads) there are a number of things you can do to help out the whole family.

First of all, do not pull away or assume “If they need anything, they'll call.” Instead, let your friend know that you're still around, and if at all possible, make a specific offer of help. Seriously, be detailed in your offer. Don't say "We should lunch," instead ask "Can we meet for coffee on Friday at 10?" Don't put the burden of figuring out the logistics on the person who is already struggling. 

Even if your friend has funds to make it through to the next job, it's likely that the family is scaling way back on eating out, family activities, and purchases. This is your chance to:
  • Let them know you're thinking of them. It's cheesy, but sometimes just a funny photo sent on facebook or a card mailed to their home can be a massive lift. In our most recent move a postcard reappeared years after friend sent it. It was originally sent ages ago while I was in a rough patch. I think I smiled as much seeing it the second time as I did the first time. Your words of love and support mean a lot. 
  • Exercise together. This can be as simple as going for a walk together, or you might purchase a pass or a voucher for a number of workouts. Years ago a friend bought me a month long pass to Bikram Yoga. Because it was a gift I felt I should use it, and my near daily practice of Bikram Yoga that cold Kansas February really helped get me out of a winter funk.  
  • Offer to take the kids to and from activities, especially if you have children participating in the same activities. This is especially helpful if you have children on any kind of travel team. In addition to the cost of traveling to compete in another town, there may be hotel room and meal expenses involved that can be hard for the unemployed family to bear.
  • Invite the children in the family or even the whole family to come with you on outings. If you have a trip planned to a resort or theme park, ask if Johnny and Jenny can come with your family. Let your friend know that you don't expect them to cover the cost of the tickets and whatever you do, don't ask within earshot of the children.
  • Have your friend over for dinner. If your friend has scaled way back on eating out, this can be a welcome break from meal prep and a good chance to socialize, and may even help out with the family's budget. A lot of expat families travel in and out of the country a lot, being stuck in one country means they may not have access to duty free liquor or favorites from home. Dinner with your family can be a good time to share your stash of imported treats and know it will be appreciated. 
  • Drop off a meal or even just flowers. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of dealing with the situation the simple things at home - like flowers on the table - don't get refreshed. Here in Fiji flowers are cheap and easy to obtain and they can be a real mood boost. A heat-and-eat meal can be a lifesaver at the end of the day. 
  • Schedule a playdate for the kids or offer to babysit on a moment's notice. A scheduled playdate gives the kids and the parents a date to look forward to, but a voucher for babysitting may be even more valuable as it frees the parent up to go to an interview or a networking event. If you are able to, feed the kids while you have them. It's one less thing for your friends to think about when they pick their kids up.
  • Declutter. I know this sounds strange, but go ahead and clean out the closets and the basement. It's something you were planning to do anyway, but instead of taking everything directly to a donation point, call up your friend and ask if they are interested in anything you're donating. An old smartphone may be an incredible boon to your friend, and new-to-them video games and toys might be great for the kids.
Here are couple more ways to help, but keep in mind that there are lots of things you can do. Let your relationship with your friend and her family be your guide.
  • Offer to help with garage saling, packing, anything related to the house and home. As the recipient sometimes it's easier to refocus a specific request than it is to come up with something to ask for.  
  • Be honest. If your friend asks you for your opinion on their situation or CV or really anything, offer it as gently as possible, but honestly. It's so much easier to hear a negative review from a friend, and it is possible that you may be the first and only person to pass something on.
  • Listen. One of the hardest things some people face when out of work is the loss of the daily companionship during the workday. If you're asked for help or advice, by all means offer it, but realize that sometimes your friends may just want you to listen.
  • Be dependable - if you offer a favor or a physical item, don't rescind the offer or change it at the last moment. Your friend may have lined up other things based on your offer, the loss of your support can leave your friend in worse shape than before your offer. 
In short - step forward, offer gently, check in as often as you feel comfortable, be dependable. Situations don't usually develop overnight and your support long after the first news breaks is appreciated.