Family Meals; A guide for the previously disconnected

Like me, some of my readers may have grown up without meals at a table. For those of us who grew up watching family meals on shows like “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Brady Bunch,” longing to build the experience into their own future family culture, I have decided to share my tips and experience.

How does one make the cultural leap from eating all meals (if there were meals) from your lap at the TV to weaving a routine of eating together at a table, without distractions?  

First, I realized you need to have a dinner meal every day. I find it hard, though, to stick with routines. Having had none when I was young, I find it exceedingly difficult to maintain a routine for anything. Even for family meals, which are a high priority for me, I can slag and waiver if the executive functioning needed feels overwhelming. I may adopt a new routine and *love* it, then fall off the wagon and abandon it completely after a few days or weeks. I might leave everyone to find leftovers while I spend time trying to complete an article and hope they don’t notice my absence. This is especially true if there is any barrier to success, like having a difficult or tedious reset-system on a ‘to-do’ list app. I have found that setting an alarm that goes off daily has made a big difference. My “make dinner” alarm is set for 5 pm every day. With the daily alarm, we are guaranteed to have enough time to thaw supplies and cook before our hopeful dinnertime of 6:30. Or we have time to order food, if budget and schedule dictate.

Another issue many people have is what to eat. We couldn’t really have the same food every time and maintain interest for everyone. If you’re trying to build a new culture in an existing family system, the switch from purchased meals or packaged foods can be eased if you can make better meals at home, but that difficulty is exacerbated for people with childhood trauma and neglect because those things are often accompanied by a lack of skills and experience. The best meals from my childhood involved white bread and Spaghetti-O’s, so I longed to try making meals my childhood peers complained about: meatloaf and steamed Brussels sprouts sounded like magic, tuna casserole sounded like heaven, and homemade soups and stews sounded like myths.

I began trying to cook for my family when I was 14. I completed a course on Home Economics, which gave me a boost of confidence in the kitchen, and taught me about basic nutrition. Unfortunately that did not translate to all my meals turning out well. After many disasters that did *not* lead to any property damage, I managed to achieve a short-list of about a dozen meals I can consistently make which my children will eat. If you are one of millions who “don’t know how to cook,” I hope you will find it in yourself to be brave and look for lists of 20-30 minute meals you can make with everyday-ingredients. YouTube is full of easy-to-follow videos (with ingredient lists in the description) where you can follow along making simple meals. Family meals do not have to be extravagant but they should include a source of protein, at least two colors of vegetables, and some grains or starches.

Even with some skill and experience, and a schedule that worked, I struggled to solve the primary complaint I hear from all home-cooks. This is that *deciding* what to cook for meals each day is harder for them than *cooking* the meals each day. I tried menu-planning but that meant having to do all the brain-work for a period of time only to have to adjust when needed ingredients were not in-stock or when life left me with less time than I needed for a particular meal prep. This meant it did not save me time in the end.

What worked for me is that I developed a set of index-card meal ideas which can be shuffled to create a plan for the week in seconds. I created a list of items I keep on hand (because we are blessed with an income that supports such a plan). The ingredients can be used to make various meals. This is a similar strategy to having versatile clothing items that work well in different ways when paired with accessories, jeans, or slacks. Ground beef can be turned into chili, burgers, meatloaf, tacos, goulash, Sloppy Joes, Bolognese, Stroganoff, or meatballs. Chicken can be baked, fried, boiled, shredded, or made into cold chicken salad. A whole chicken can be used for several meals before the bones become broth (best with added vegetable scraps from a storage bag in your freezer). Rice, pasta, potatoes, onions, eggs, spices, and frozen vegetables can turn into a meal all by themselves without much prep. I can make simple, nutritious meals for most days in around half an hour. If I know I won’t have much time for meal prep due to appointments or other issues, I can set up a meal in a Crockpot in the morning and have it warm and ready by dinner.

Once I have the food decided upon, manage my schedule enough to make sure it’s ready at about the same time each day, and actually do the work to prepare it, how do I get my family to join in?

Well, I ask them. I make sure we have a table and chairs to sit at. I (at first) set the table and make it easy for them to sit down and enjoy the meals. I tell them it is important to me, and ask them to sit and eat with me without distractions. Once everyone gets in the habit of leaving books, toys, and devices to share a meal every evening, they can be given tasks like setting the table, moving food to the table, calling others to join us, and cleaning up. We have each child wash one dish for each year they are old.

To keep conversation going and engage everyone we try to have prompts ready. Sometimes we ask everyone to share a positive thing they think of. Recently, a friend of mine gave us a “chat Pack” to use. It consists of a stack of cards with conversation starters on them. We sometimes pull out a card and take turns responding to the prompts or listening to everyone else. Family meals are finally starting to feel like a positive and ‘normal’ part of our culture. They give us the opportunity (pre-Covid at least) to invite others over to share these times with us without it being a special event.

Connecting is a part of our family culture that feels good to us all, and heals those parts of me that wished for connection when I was young. I would love to hear from you about how you make ways to connect with your people. Please leave a comment below with your favorite strategies and tips?

Cooking rules I created for myself:

1) Read the whole recipe before you decide if you are ready to try it.

2) Verify that you have all the needed ingredients and tools before starting.

3) Set Timers.

Rules for the table:

1) No books, toys, or devices.

2) Take what you want, and eat what you take.

3) Aim for at least 4 (natural) colors of food on your plate at every meal.

4) Take small portions to begin with and then take more if you are still hungry.

5) Drink fluids (Water, milk, juice or tea).

Some great videos of simple meals to prepare:

Community Support Makes All the Difference

Who do you call if you need help moving a couch or a bed frame? Where do you turn if you need to pay a bill before your first paycheck comes in? Who do you call for advice if you have trouble with a landlord or roommate? Most of us call parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings. Many of us have a best friend, coworker, or neighbor we’ve known long enough to form a relationship with, at least.

When you grow up in foster care, or just with negligent parents, the answer is different. Many of those family or otherwise long-term relationships that build social capital are torn asunder. Regardless of the cause, when a person moves frequently, they don’t have the opportunity to build long-lasting relationships in their community. This leaves them even more isolated than we might expect them to be.

Well, Oregon is reaching out to the helpers in their state to offer a helping hand to those we know need it. Their magnificent new idea in social innovation is called My Neighbor. It’s an online clearinghouse of volunteers who are ready, by phone or text, to offer support to foster youth in their community. They call it an “Emergency Response System” and it is already changing the outcomes for young people in and out of foster care.

Have a truck? You could volunteer to make a life-changing delivery of a bed to a foster youth’s first independent apartment.

Do you have a car? You could drive a young person to an opportunity-presenting interview.

Maybe you could tutor a young person hoping to pass a class or graduate. Maybe you could provide a much-needed bag of diapers and baby supplies to a struggling new parent. Maybe you could just donate a little money so that the organization can meet the emergency needs of a youth that calls in.

Imagine being the person that stops the initial event that would have led to a downward spiral?

When I was young, I had no one to call for help. I didn’t have the money to buy new brake pads for my car, so I drove on worn ones until the brakes stopped working. Then I walked. I lost my car, and then my job because of the cost of a pair of brake pads. It was four years of hard work before I was able to purchase another car, with the help of a friend’s parent. That single loan of $700 changed my life. I was able to work, and was then able to pay down debt. I eventually graduated from college, still driving that car. I wish I could call that man today and thank him for helping me turn things around. And, I wish I could change the script for all those in need. I can’t do that alone, but organizations like this one allow us to all pool what we have, or what we can do. They allow support for those individuals in need to come from a group of neighbors who decided that their lives were worth it.

Let’s work together to be those people.

Recipes to use up Food Bank supplies.

Creative meals

Please stick with me as I attempt to use tech in new and interesting ways. This article will (eventually) have hyperlinks to the recipes themselves. If it works, items that have been underlined will lead you to other websites where I found recipes that worked well.

Food banks are amazing. They offer free food packages to families in need. Service varies by state, county, and town. In general, they all have an abundance of dry goods. Anyone who has survived with the help of food bank programs knows that after several weeks a household can end up with an abundance of supplies that can be difficult to integrate into menu items. I have experienced periods of my life where it was necessary getting creative with staples from the food bank programs. I have a few ideas that are pretty popular. I will link them here as I learn how to do so.

Recipes

  • Chicken pot pie: For this recipe, I mix two packets of “gravy” mix, a can each of drained carrots, corn, peas, and chicken (larger sized). If I have any I will dice potatoes and onions and cook them in some butter before mixing the gravy into the water. I do this all in the same pan. This is the filling to put into whichever crust you might have on hand. This can be made with variations for crusted, crust-less, and a Deconstructed version to use up Biscuit mix. If you try it, leave a comment below to let me know if you and your family enjoy it as much as we do?
  • Fry-bread / Fried dough is a great way to uses up dry flour, powdered milk, and vegetable oil. This can be served with chili and taco toppings, covered in a stew for a tasty, filling dinner, or as a dessert with honey butter and powdered sugar. Mmmmmmm. Not that there is any leftover, but if some pieces survive the onslaught of your horde it can be lain flat to freeze, then put into a zipper in the freezer. They work well in a toaster to re-heat. The same process works for leftover pancakes or french toast. Indeed, many times I have made triple-batches of these recipes just so that I could freeze a portion of them for quick meals to be pulled out later. What a time saver!
  • Vegetable soup. It was a revelation to me that I could add various canned vegetables to a pan and it would become soup! I use canned vegetables of several varieties, tomato paste or sauce, and dry beans can be added, soaked or not. Whatever you have in your stores. I usually start all my soups with a quart of broth, which can be homemade from leftover bones and veggies or canned. See the link below for a simple at-home broth. Usually, it takes a bit of tweaking to figure out which spices and flavors taste best, but this is by far the best and simplest way to use up those cans. Soup can also be frozen in small containers and brought out later for quick healthy meals.
  • Goulash. I think of goulash as a dry-soup. I use whatever pasta I have on hand and cook that until it’s just under-done. I add canned or frozen veggies and a can of pasta sauce. I might even throw in canned soups that are hanging around. I add the pasta once everything else has had time to heat through. This can be made in a meat or veggie version. Add salt, pepper, and garlic to taste.
  • What to do with canned cranberry sauce: You can make muffins, cookie bars, smoothies, or add to turkey sandwiches! I love cranberry sauce on my sandwiches.
  • Canned pumpkin. This changed my life. When I realized that pumpkin could go way beyond the pie, I realized how much I loved pumpkin in everything. My favorite recipe is to make a curry garlic pumpkin soup. We also like to make pumpkin pancakes. Let me know how you like to use up your pumpkin?
  • Make your own broth: It’s amazing how simple it is to create delicious, nutritious veggie or bone broths from the food you might otherwise have thrown away. I try to keep a zipper bag in my freezer and add the ends of veggies I’ve used in other recipes. when the bag gets full I dump the whole thing in a pot with water. I usually add any bones I have as well. I let it simmer with a little bit of vinegar added, sometimes overnight. This can also be done in a crockpot. Can be refrigerated or frozen. I suggest using smaller containers so you can pull out as much or as little as you need.
  • Easy dinners with rice as a base: There are so many ways to eat rice. Even leftover cooked rice can be turned into appetizing meals. I’ve made casseroles, Risotto, Fried rice, Veggie rice bowls (with or without egg), Rice cakes, and scrumptious easy rice pudding. For the pudding, I add a can of sweetened condensed milk, cinnamon, and raisins to a pan. I warm it up, adding a splash of water or milk if needed to thin it out. When it is warm enough to steam a little I add the cold leftover rice and stir until it is all warm.

I hope you find some use for the lingering items in your kitchen. If I have missed any good ones, please let me know in the comments below.

If you are hungry click here to find a food bank near you.

How to Apply for a Birth Certificate

For most people, when you need a copy of your birth certificate you go to your parents who have one stored safely away in a file or baby book. Parents may tearfully hand it over because you are growing up and need to use it. You will eventually need one to gain identification or apply for some school, program, or job.

When you have neglectful, abusive, addicted, or otherwise non-functioning parents, that is usually not the case. For myself and many of the others I have met who have spent time in foster care or otherwise raising themselves, needing a birth certificate or social security card can be a barrier that is insurmountable unless help is found. I hope to write this and help someone else manage that hurdle easier than I did.

Step one: Find as much information about your birth as you can: Parent’s full names, date, and city of birth are a must. If you do not have this information, find any files or paperwork you have about yourself (Medical bills, foster care files, dental records). Look in unusual places for clues and ask anyone you come into official contact with. Someone will have the information on file.

Step two: Find the vital records office for the county you were born in. Usually, a search for “Vital records” on a mapping program will show the ones nearest you and can be set to any location. Your town office may have the information if you can’t find it.

Step three: Once you know where you were born, you can usually order a copy on the phone, online, or in person. If cash is your only means of paying for a copy (they usually run between $6-20), then it will have to be in-person. Anyone’s credit card will work (if you have permission) so if going in-person is not an option then you can ask someone you know to use their card and give them the cash directly.

Step four: Keep it safe. Plan ahead to have a safe folder, binder, or box to keep important papers in. If you order online it will come in the mail, and if you go in they will give you a copy. Either way, you will need to keep it safe so that you don’t have to pay for another copy. Don’t plan on keeping it in your purse or wallet. It’s too easy to lose.

I have a folder like this that I keep in a safe place and only bring out when I need to go somewhere important. ((Not an advertisement, no ad revenue)) https://www.staples.com/staples-13-pocket-expanding-file-folder-coupon-assorted-51828/product_2757021

A Reminder to Myself to be Compassionate when I am Weary

As a mom, and a childhood trauma survivor, I find it very difficult at times to differentiate between when my child is being particularly difficult, and when I am personally struggling. It often looks and feels the same, but the response needs to be different.

This article voiced some of the reminders I have been giving myself while staying at home. I would add to the title so it would read “Why *you and* your child are being babies right now.”

https://www.today.com/parents/child-regression-signs-regression-kids-what-do-about-it-t177861?fbclid=IwAR0kU2M4WNb4TijLvsogZJSmFy2u9D3uZoX6FBwfYSVltwpKny1NrC0azok

A Trigger, in the form of a Schoolbus.

I am reminded daily of my past. It crops up in little ways but sometimes hits me like… well, like a school bus.


As a service to families in our area during the pandemic shutdown, our local school district has been delivering meals for our kids. Every couple of days each of them receives a bag of breakfast foods, a bag of lunch foods, and a few cartons of milk and juice. We have appreciated it. It has helped us to shop less, relax more, and the kids have enjoyed both the delivery and the individually packed snacks that are unusual in our house.

Today, the system changed so that instead of volunteers, the bus drivers began to deliver the meals. It was a great way to ensure delivery to all students, and keep the bus drivers driving and paid.

I was very triggered by what happened.

The kids were all anxiously waiting in our window seat as we heard the beeping of a bus outside. We saw a school bus pull up outside our house and park. The driver got out, opened the door to reveal bagged lunches intended for kids, and checked his list. He then shut the door, drove the bus around our street for a few minutes, delivered meals across the street, and then left. 

We are fine, we have food enough, and I’m sure it will get sorted. It was just crushing for me that the kids stood watching in anticipation and then watched the bus drive away. 

Their disappointment was nothing compared to the memory that it triggered for me. They accepted my reassuring words that things would be sorted out. They trust me to make sure that they have food. Theirs was the mild disappointment of delayed surprises.

For me, there is very little that compares to the childhood trauma of being so very hungry and watching other people eat when I was a kid. Trained to never tell anyone I was hungry I would sit silently while I could see and smell food just feet from me. I sometimes watched people throw food away after taking only one bite. Like a trained dog, I would hold perfectly still and silent. That all came back as I watched the bus drive away today. I managed my own feelings by creating a meal for them from things we already had on hand, and by calling to have the mistake corrected. The transport dispatcher was very apologetic and promised the driver would be redirected to us as soon as he could. The kids didn’t even look up when I told them, they were fed and happy. I tried to take comfort from that.

We will be fine and I really don’t need anything, it was just a hard experience for me. It didn’t help that I hadn’t taken the time to eat breakfast, either.

Another piece of breaking the cycle is learning to take care of my needs before they are overdue.

Breakfast (It’s the little things)

One of the many ways I work to heal the trauma from my childhood is through providing for my children what my brothers and I did not have.

Today is a Sunday and with everyone home, my husband and I made a big breakfast. As we sat around the table with our children, passing pancakes and sausages, orange slices, and yogurt, I felt the weight of grief that bubbles up sometimes. It begins with a lump in my throat and a sob that lingers in my chest, stubbornly refusing to move.


The grief is obviously connected to years of hunger and food insecurity, but it’s more than that.

I carry around, in my heart, the image of the little girl I was. She is thin, with short hair and clothes that are too big or too small and totally out of fashion.

The hardest part of carrying her around is not her sadness, but the look on her face. In these visions, at these moments when the grief bubbles up, I see her looking not sad but confused. Confused about why she can see a world that is full of food and other riches, but she has to go hungry.

She can see a world full of people that experience joy and love every day, yet she is alone and scared of the people that are closest to her. She just doesn’t understand and I have never found the words to explain it to her.

The best I can do is to ensure that it stops with me.

Reflection on Courage

Age has granted me the clarity needed to understand something that has plagued my understanding since I was very young. Even as a six-year-old I remember watching people hurt, and watching those hurt people turn away and push away those people they longed to be close to.

I understood, as a teenager, that the reason for this was primarily fear of rejection. Never short on hubris or words I have attempted many times, with varying degrees of success, to open their eyes to the fact that they hold the power to end their own pain, and the pain of others, by reaching out to them. By turning toward people and sharing their fears and passions we create connections that heal old wounds and repair burnt bridges. I explain, fruitlessly, that by sharing our fears and passions we open the door to others to do the same, bolstering them by our courage.

What age has finally granted me is the knowledge that reaching out to others when one is afraid requires a profound amount of courage that most people cannot summon. And, that when a person (of any age) can and does summon the courage, one must act to recognize it for the bravery it is, no matter the outcome.

Vulnerability is so courageous when it comes from someone who has been hurt. We have all been hurt.

Books to Escape in

I had very little access to books as a young child. Though I Ioved to read and read well, the books I had access to outside of school or while visiting the library were very limited. I was not exposed to much of what is generally known as literature. I was not read to at home after Grandma died when I was three.

One of the measures by which I can objectively *know* I’m a better parent than the adults around when I was a child is that I seek out lists of classic books by grade and make sure they are around for the kids to choose from. I also find my old favorites, typically ones teachers read to the class or assigned book reports for, and I read them aloud to my children. When we drive on long trips I play them as audiobooks, which is typically preceded by negotiations where the kids and I settle on alternating between one of my choosing and one of theirs.

Today we listened to one by Wilson Awls, that I had never read. I knew the story and had seen the movie, but I’m really enjoying listening to the real thing.

As a parent that was never raised, my generation is having to learn to re-grow with our children. This requires a great deal of re-invention and re-imagining the home life that will result in less-broken people than we became; less broken than the people we are un-becoming.

Finding yourself: some practical tools and advice.

So much of my growth and healing has been part of the process of learning about myself.

As a child, my life and choices were controlled. Fear and circumstance were used to keep me from wearing clothes that fit, from feeling safe or secure anywhere, and from making even the simplest decisions for myself. When I was able to leave and control my environment, I was ill-suited to make good decisions. I remember watching a movie in a theater and someone in the film asked “how do you like your eggs?”

It was an epiphany moment for me because I could not answer the question. I decided that I needed to learn more about what I liked: food, clothing, hair, and any number of other desires I had never been allowed to choose needed to be something I explored and began making with intention.

I went wild with clothing, cut my hair short (I hated it), and began to cook foods in different ways to determine what I actually liked. As it turns out, poached eggs are my preference, followed by soft boiled.

There are many tools that have helped me to learn about myself and begin to honor who I am and what I want.

For those of us with remembered trauma, the ACES quiz can help you understand your experience and maintain awareness of adverse effects from our experiences. Once you have your score, this article can help you understand the study behind it, and how the results can inform your future. Did you know that people with scores above 4 are more likely to suffer from lung disease? Healthcare providers should know your score and keep an eye on issues that could be affected by your experiences.

The Myers-Briggs personality type identifier first taught me that there are types. The 16 unique combinations of Introvert/Extrovert, Sensing/iNtuiting, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging/Perceiving are guides to teach us about how we take in information, and how we process it. It helps to learn that each of your type letters can be understood as being on a scale: It’s not E or I, but where on that spectrum you primarily function. It’s also important to realize that we are not always functioning at our best. Our inferior functions (the opposite of our primary functioning) helps us understand how we are likely to react in stressful or traumatic situations.

The Five Love Languages quizzes have helped me to understand how I try to show love to others, how I want to receive love, and how others do the same. The results also helped me to understand the disconnect I have experienced in some past relationships that failed, and what characteristics might be more compatible with future partners. There are quizzes you can help your children take, too. Those results gave us all a framework for discussing what we each want and need, and how to best show each other how much we care. I love hugs, but one of my children really prefers words of affirmation to physical touch. This knowledge has helped our family grow in understanding and grace for one another.

The revelation in the movie theater started me on a path of self-discovery I still walk today. I learned to give myself permission to let go of clothing, food, behaviors, and other choices I did not like. I also learned to advocate for myself in situations where I was not getting what I wanted. It was OK to ask a waitress to correct something if I didn’t like what was served. It is actually important to tell others, with words, if they are doing something I don’t like. I have learned to be firm while continuing to display compassion for myself and others through my self-affirming words. I have also learned that it is kinder to be honest, even if it might change outcomes or cause others to have feelings.

“I don’t want to eat this.”

“I don’t like the way I look in this.”

“I want something warmer” “…softer,” “…cleaner.”

These changes have given me the confidence I lacked as a child. These insights have led me to deeper relationships with those I love and helped me to heal some of the trauma I will always carry.

What do you do to learn about yourself? What moments have left you with a new perspective on yourself or others? Comment below and let me know.