Baking your way to quick lunch snacks

I am not a baker by any stretch of the imagination. I like cooking but because I don’t have a sweet tooth, I rarely consider whipping up some cinnamon buns or scones unless I have a coffee or tea date planned with friends. Still, with the competition of school lunches being extremely appealing, I do try and keep our homemade lunches interesting. Part of that process is creating interesting things to put in the kid’s lunches, which means I have had to up my baking game. While I will never surpass the greatness of some of the bento box blogs out there, I do make sure to switch things up so they don’t get bored.

Luckily for me, the kids love to help out in the kitchen. I know it makes baking things three times as long when you add children to the mix but they do love to help and it is nice to spend time productively with them. Kids also enjoy eating things they had a hand in making so by working together you can also ensure they will eat the finished product. Also, since everything is a balance of time vs. money when both parents are working, this is a great way to save money, time and get in some family time as well.

So on a lazy weekend day once or twice a month I will prepare all the ingredients for a batch of cookies or a batch of muffins. After they cool, I then freeze them in giant freezer bags so in the morning while I am groggily making lunches, it’s easy to just toss them into a container & go.

Tips:

Use what you have: Batches of muffins usually coincide with the amount of bananas that have gone past their prime or the amount of carrots we have on hand. We always keep pantry staples around (flour, baking powder, oatmeal, raisins, spices) so look through your fridge for ways to use up what may go bad.

Always prep first: If you are doing this with children make sure that you have pre-measured the ingredients so that they just have to pick up the container and add it to the bowl. This may cause a few extra bowls to rinse but will save you the headache of trying to juggle and measure a cup of sugar while the kids get up to shenanigans.

Find a basic recipe and stick with it: older cookbooks such as Betty Crocker will have a generic muffin recipe or a cookie recipe that is easily adapted. All that changes is the spicing and the fruit combo. Once you know the recipe & the steps off by heart it will become second-nature.

Make fun, kid-sized stuff: I always make my cookies about 1-1.5-inches in diameter. Three of those cookies fit nicely in one small salad dressing container. Small muffins in fun muffin cups up the “WOW” factor for lunches. It takes a bit longer but it is worth it.

Alternate & double up: one weekend I may make cookies and then the next weekend I may make muffins. That way I always have a mix of the two to alternate between for lunches. I also always make sure to double the recipe so that they last.

muffins

I plan to try the kids on a traditional French Yogurt cake soon as well. This is the first cake French children learn to make and it’s measured with the yogurt container to make it an easy recipe for kids to follow. I love the idea and plan to give that a whirl soon. If they each make a cake recipe, I’ll probably be able to make a month’s worth of muffins!

A week of food posts: pre-planning meals

Yesterday I signed a new letter of offer for my current position. They are extending me for another month so my last day here will be June 13th. Incidentally, it’s also the last day I have daycare for my youngest, so it works out perfectly.

This week may be food week! I have a few things I wanted to post regarding getting organized food-wise between work-kids-activities-obligations. It seems to be the place I can make the most difference in our time considering how long it takes to buy food, prep food and cook food. With three people taking lunches to school or work every day, it can be a huge time suck so I am always looking for creative ways to reduce the time it takes to deal with food – especially on weekdays.

I do a major grocery run twice a month for the majority of our edibles. In between I may take a trip to a close produce store or to the drug store but almost all our shopping in those twice-a-month trips. Because of this, I tend to organize our weekly meal plan from what we have in the fridge. I try and gauge what is going bad and what could last a bit longer. Sunday night I get out my pad of paper and a pen and then figure out a meal plan based on what needs to be eaten earlier in the week and what can be left to the end of the week. The overall goal is to reduce waste while still providing interesting, healthy meals for the family.

On nights where I know it will be busy, I plan something simple such as a quick pasta dish or something I just need to defrost, such as pre-made stews, soups or chilli. On the nights I know we have more time, I work on something more elaborate or fun, like bbq or fondue. If the weather has been cold and rainy I am more likely to make a stew or serve a soup on the days where it is warm we focus more on salads and lighter fare. Like most people, it has become almost automatic for me to take all these variables into consideration for dinner.

On Sunday afternoon I take stock of the fridge and then look at our freezer inventory and then decide what we will eat for lunches and dinner. Then I will write down what I think will work given what activities we have that night, what the weather is like or what we haven’t had in awhile.

The result is a list I post next to our calendar. The list isn’t written in stone but it’s handy because it allows me to know that I packed soup and a sandwich in the kid’s lunch on Monday so Tuesday I may want to switch it up and do veggie sticks and chicken nuggets. It gives us the ability to use up what we have but wisely so we don’t have, say, beef three days in a row.

luncdin1

The great thing about the list is that I can take a quick glance the night before and pre-pack a lot of the things for the kid’s lunches (I generally get leftovers). While Mr. Tucker does dishes, I can assemble as much of their lunches as possible and take out anything that needs to defrost for the next day. That way when I get up the next morning (groggy, sans-coffee) I can just glance at the list, add whatever needs to be prepped that morning and then put it in their backpacks. It’s automatic and I don’t have to think about it. It definitely beats my old method of getting up in a haze at 5:45am and then trying to figure out what to do for lunches!

When I am working, this method works like a charm. It minimizes the amount we eat out because I‘ve noticed that we ate out more when we couldn’t really think of what to do for dinner. Organizing our meals based around what we already have has minimized waste, saved money and made our lives a lot easier.

Brainstorming: nosce te ipsum

Why do you want to work part-time? Is it so you will have more time for friends and family? More time for a creative pursuit? Do you need time to explore volunteer options for a career change? Do you want to go back to school? Maybe you were downsized and had no choice or an illness is keeping you from full-time work? The list of reasons why people want to – or have to – work part-time are probably as long as there are people! Still, you should do some prep work before jumping into the fray and the first step of this preparation should be a brainstorming exercise. You should sit down and think – and I really mean THINK – about how part-time work will affect your life both positively and negatively. To get you started, here are some questions and considerations you will need to explore as honestly as possible:

1 – Why part-time? State the obvious here whether or not it is a selfish reason or an altruistic one. Be realistic about your goals or your limitations. The answer to this question will direct the answers to other questions.

2 – What are your strengths and weaknesses? If you can’t lift a heavy box, you will need to avoid applying for any jobs with that requirement. If you aren’t a morning person, chances are a 5am paper route won’t be for you. If you can’t stand unpredictability, going the temp route may be too draining for you.

3 – Skills. Given your education and background, what types of jobs can you reasonably expect to get? My career has been mostly in communications and administration but I have a degree in psychology and am extremely technically proficient. So given that background I have been able to work my resume in way that opens up the doors to decent-paying contracts in the public sector.

4 – What are your limitations? If you have childcare demands or medical issues you will have to take these into consideration when looking for positions. I have been lucky enough to have excellent and decently-priced childcare available in my neighbourhood. Someone who doesn’t have those options may have to limit the work they can apply for.

5 – Type. What kind of part-time do you think you would enjoy? A permanent part-time job is a bit of the unicorn of the working world but is still a laudable goal. I like the full-time contract for a set period of time which allows me the opportunity to take entire swaths of time off and to also plan for child care.

6 – Finances. What salary expectations do you have and what do you need? You should give yourself a low number and a high number and aim to compare the salary up against other benefits of taking a job such as location and hours. You should also have a budget in place to project what you reasonably need to live.

7 – Location. how far will you go? Everyone has their limits such as how far they are willing to commute, whether or not you own a car etc. If you are relying on public transportation the areas that aren’t serviced by the bus system may be too challenging.

8 – Grooming expectations. if you work in a customer-facing environment you may need to wear make-up or own a selection of business suits. If you work in an IT environment, the expected dress code will be a lot more low-key. You will need to consider the extra time and money.

9 – Benefits. If you do not have benefits already or have to work full time in your current position to receive benefits, that could potentially be the biggest limitation.

10 – Dreams. How do you see yourself in the future? Is part-time work a stepping stone to something bigger in your life? Where do you see yourself in one year, three years and five years?

These teaser questions are a good basis for you to start your own brainstorming session. As the ancient Greeks would say, nosce te ipsum – know thyself. You may go through this exercise and determine that part-time work is just not viable for you at this point in time. That’s ok, too! You may be financially behind at this period in your life and have too many expenses. You may also discover that you are very much tied to your identify as a full-time employee and aren’t quite ready to make the leap. The purpose of this exploration is to put together a concrete document to use as a mirror so you can see the reality of your situation. It’s not about judgment or beating yourself up but instead it’s about creating a starting point from where all other decisions will stem. I recommend you take some time to work through these questions and also to think about other questions that may be relevant. Who knows what you could possibly discover or where it will lead you?

Faux Pho

I had the misfortune of being super sick two days before the Easter long weekend (I get Friday and Monday off for Easter at my current job). So while it looked like a 6-day weekend, I really spent most of it in bed, feverish. My poor husband had to pick up the slack and manage work and all the household stuff by himself.

Friday nights in our house are what I call Faux Pho* and a movie night. After a long, hectic week of us all rushing around to our various destinations: school, work, daycare, aftercare, we all need a night to just relax and hang out. Friday has become the default night and so Mr. Tucker will whip up a pot of broth while I am at work and when I get home I will lay out all the ingredients in little bowls on the dining room table so each person can personalize their bowl. The kids really enjoy it because they get to build their own soup before we ladle some hot broth on from the stove. It’s a fresh, nourishing way to start the weekend.

In all honesty, I use the cheaters method of making Pho because I don’t have time to make a true soup. I use the Vietnamese soup in a teapot recipe from Laurie David’s Family Dinner book. The only thing we really change about the recipe is that instead of cooking the chicken in the soup, I bake it in the oven and slice it thinly. Beef also works well, and making a vegetarian version I feel would also be just as delicious with a few tweaks.

After dinner the kids have a warm bath, settle into their jammies and then help me pop popcorn in our 80s air popper. With our individual bowls of popcorn (we get seasoning from the bulk store & everyone enjoys a different flavour) we settle onto the couch for movie. It is the one night we earmark for family hangouts where the kids get the thrill of staying up late. It’s truly a nice, relaxing way to start off the weekend, especially since weekends can sometimes be equally as busy as weekdays.

pho

After being sick for two days straight, a hot bowl of spicy and tangy soup was exactly what the doctor ordered.  It was an especially welcome dinner on Friday night.

*It’s actually pronounced like “fa” or “feu,” as it stems from the French pot-au-feu.

So you want to go part-time: exploring the options

My own personal journey has been one of full-time contracts for a portion of the year.  Since the work I take is almost always government contracts, I can work 90 days per calendar year, per department.  Sometimes that means doing eight-ish months across two calendar years, but it can also mean switching up departments, as I did this year.   So far I have managed to take the summer off four years running to spend it with my kids.  I call this the contract method of working, where there is a definitive timeline of a full-time work followed by a period of leisure time.

My way may not be the way you would chose, nor would it be the way your neighbour chooses: part time work looks different to different people and there is no right or wrong way.  Let’s explore a few of the options.

Part-time, permanent: I know a couple of people who have managed to finagle their full-time jobs into part-time jobs, especially after they have had kids.  This works well because if an employer knows you and knows you are a good worker, chances are they will want to keep you.

Method:  full time job already that turns into a temp job or get hired in that magical unicorn position that is a part-time job.

Pros: benefits, regular hours, being able to plan better financially, not having to find work frequently.

Cons: usually can’t take huge chunks of time off, harder to find childcare, lowest on the list for vacation time.

Part-time, seasonal (mostly retail and tourist season): Summers and the winter holiday seasons are a great time to try and pick up some hours if you don’t mind lower-paying work.  It’s also a great way to start building a resume up after an absence.

Method: scour the local job sites for keywords such as temporary, seasonal.  Research various seasonal industries in your area or close by.

Pros:  easiest way to get work if you have had long stretches of unemployment, can earn money quickly for a short period of time. Can arrange to work evenings and weekends so if you have kids, you can manage without childcare.

Cons:  usually terrible hours over the holiday/summer season, lower-paying, short duration of work.

I have a friend who has made a career out of seasonal work.  He has been tree planting since he was a teenager and has worked his way up to management.  Every summer he leads a team and since there is nowhere to really spend money, he saves it and lives off his accumulated savings in the winter.  He even uses his money to travel around Asia and South America during those cold dark days.  It helps that he lives in a city with low rents but a city that is interesting enough that he can sublet over the summer months.  It also helps that he lives frugally and has no dependents.

Temp work: For those of you who have huge emergency funds, low living expenses or who just like to live on the edge, temp work can be a great way to pick up work when you want it, and ignore it when you don’t.  Temp work is especially handy if you are in the position to travel the country.  It’s easier to roll into town, take a short-term contract and explore your new surroundings in your time off.

Method: contact temp agencies.  Most agencies are national in scope with a local office so keep a running list of agencies and contact them frequently.

Tip – temp work is one of those situations where the squeaky wheel gets the grease:  you have to stay on top of temp agencies to keep yourself on their radar.  Make sure you stay in contact frequently to remind them you are still available for work.

Pros: can make money quickly,  establishing a good relationship with an agency can get you better contracts, can specify long or short term, some permanent possibilities.

Cons:  can be cut short with little notice, depending on the area you live in, competition can be fierce,  a large time investment to make it work well, you may have to take contracts you don’t want or be removed from the call list (especially before you have built a relationship).  It can be difficult to manage if you have children.

Occasional:  Occasional work comes in many forms.  You could be a part-time babysitter for a friend in the neighbourhood, a pet /house sitter for when people go on vacation.  You could even rent a room out in your house on Air BnB.  Personally, I have been a babysitter at a religious institution during holiday ceremonies, and worked as poll clerk during elections.  This is a great way to wet your feet if you are thinking of jumping back into the workforce after an absence or are gearing down for retirement and are looking to find the odd income stream.

I have a friend who lives in a small town close to the city.  She attends a lot of local auctions and thrift stores and gleans it for things of value.  She then re-sells it on local buy/sell websites or through her online store.

Pros:  occasional income if you are afloat financially can be a hobby you make a career, a great way to learn something new.

Cons: unreliable stream of income, can be a lot of work, it can be stressful to have guests in your home.

Last but not least,

Start your own business: you may not think so, but this can be a dangerous one.  I ran my own business for 5 years before deciding to stay home with my kids and that is because a small business can get away from you.  You may think of keeping it to part-time but if you are like me and work hard and have great word-of-mouth you will find more clients coming in and it’s extremely difficult to say no to more hours.  As most small business owners will tell you as well, you put in a lot more hours than you think you will.  I owned a small cleaning company so it just wasn’t the cleaning that was difficult, it was the marketing, finances, customer service, inventory and all the other things that take up your time.  So unless you are extremely diligent in the kind of business you run to make sure it start part time, chances are you will creep up to over full-time hours if you aren’t paying attention.

So, these are just a few examples and I am sure you can think of a million and one different pros and cons that apply to your area of the world and that is relevant to your life.   The above is in no way an exhaustive list but instead examples of how you can head towards a part-time lifestyle.  We’ll address each option as the months go on, but for now this is just to give you an idea of the options.

In a future post I will explore the brainstorming exercise every person should do to start them off on the right path.

The permanent work pack (PWP)

The nature of my work is that I am on the move a lot and that all my contracts are in a standard office environment. Last year alone I worked at three different places so I was never around long enough to fully pack a cubicle with knick-knacks. That doesn’t mean I don’t personalize my spaces, it just means I have to remember that my time at any place is temporary and what I carry in, I have to carry out. That being said, there are a few accessories that are required for work so I keep what I call a Permanent Work Pack (PWP) in storage to take with me from contract to contract.

What is in the PWP? The PWP contains the basic of things you would need to get through a typical 8-hour day at work. It has to be packed well enough to be ONE bag that you could carry in and carry out on any day. My guess is that the majority of things in my PWP are things people across the board would bring with them to work, such as cutlery. Other things would be more person-dependant, such as a coffee maker. If you don’t drink coffee, or if your office already has a coffeemaker, you would definitely not bring one with you. It’s been my experience that every office environment has different amenities so you would have to assess the first day or two before removing or adding stuff to your PWP.

For example, in one of my previous jobs there was no coffeemaker on-site, so I made sure to bring my wee one-cup coffeemaker. In my current position there are coffeemakers everywhere! There is a Keurig, a 12-cup coffeemaker, and an individual Keurig. So there is obviously no need to bring my one-cup coffeemaker with me to work. I took it out of my PWP and left it in storage. When I finish this contract I will pop it back in, but for now it can just stay at home.

My PWP is actually a backpack that my husband got at a conference but any large-ish backpack will do. I tend to carry quite a few things in my PWP but if you are more of a minimalist, you may find yourself carrying less. The key though is to have one bag whose sole purpose is to store and transport your work stuff. As to what to keep in it, here is a snapshot of the things I have in my PWP:

Food

– A selection of tea
– An emergency lunch of a can of soup & pack of crackers
– An emergency breakfast of oatmeal with fruit & nuts
– Condiments (packs of soy sauce, salt & pepper, mustard and ketchup)

Utensils and tools

– A tea ball
– Cutlery: knife/fork/teaspoon/soup spoon/chop sticks
– Small plate
– Soup bowl
– Mug
– Water bottle
– Small one-cup coffeemaker
– Cloth napkin (I take this home and replace it when it’s dirty)
– Wet wipes to clean my desk

Medicine & wellness

– Multivitamins
– Allergy medication
– Painkillers
– Cold & flu medication
– Antacids

Personal care

– Box of tissue
– Chewing gum
– Hand cream
– Hand sanitizer
– Lip balm
– Hair ties/clips

Clothing

– One pair of black shoes
– One pair of brown shoes
– Sweater
– Extra socks

I also have a few pictures of family & drawings my kids did tucked in there as well.

It seems like a lot but most of the stuff is small and packs pretty tightly. When I run out, I just make a note to bring some more stuff from home or add it to a shopping list. If I keep on top of replenishing it and making sure it’s all together when I store it, the next time I take it out for work, it is good to go. Of course, everyone’s PWP will be different and contain different things. Mine is suitable for office work where you have your own office space. If you work in a different environment you would have a completely different PWP. I’d love to hear some new ideas or additions!

Early retirement calculator

I came across this Early Retirement Calculator this morning.  It`s a fun tool to play with to see if you could manage to quit working full time sooner rather than later.  While I am a fan of dropping down to part-time work as soon as you can, this is a great exercise for people who would rather work full time and retire earlier.

The rise of invisible work

Atlantic Monthly explores the  rise of invisible work.

So you want to go back to work…

There are a myriad of ways to want to re-enter the workforce: maybe you are worried about living off one salary in the middle of an economic crisis; maybe you just wanted to go back to work, or gain new skills, or just enter a new chapter in your life. At this point, you are in the process of figuring out how to re-enter the workforce.

My own personal decision to go back to work was because I wanted to pay off a bit of debt and to pad my resume with recent work experience. Should anything happen to my husband’s job I would at least have a better chance at finding work if I kept my resume current.

I knew right away that with my kids so young and my resume so outdated that my best bet would be to try and find some temporary contracts. So I sat down and brainstormed how I was going to break back into the workforce. If anything, this will be your biggest step, so brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm!

1. What kind of work?

Some of you may already have training in a field you enjoy and that often has openings. A career in healthcare is a good example, there always seems to be a requirement for nurses. For the rest of us, there may be a lot more soul searching. Although I have a degree in the social sciences, I knew that my target would be government contracts in administration or communications. I have had previous experience in both these fields and I knew that I would be able to network those types of contracts.

Still, you may not want to go back to your previous work or it may be in a field where short contracts or part-time work is unavailable. Some people also may choose to work in retail or customer service because it gets them out of the house, not because they need the money. Whatever your own personal story is, you need to narrow down a range of employment targets.

2. Childcare

This is probably the second-biggest question families will have to consider when a parent returns to work. Childcare will be much easier for you if you can work opposite shifts than your spouse. Unfortunately, the trade-off is losing quality time with your spouse and any extracurricular activities you had planned in those hours. Along the same vein, if you can arrange work schedules to save on childcare, that will help you financially.

The other option is family or friends. Trading with another family who requires childcare at a different time could work out for flexible families. If you have a family member who is willing to help with childcare, that is also an option. These informal arrangements can be very convenient for all parties but they can also be very messy if both sides aren’t clear on the expectations.

Our choice has been home daycares within walking distance from our house, nursery schools and a local after-school program run by the YMCA in our area. We considered the trade-off financially and ruled out larger daycare centres: the cost combined with the added commute for pick-up/drop-off would have been too much of a hassle.

3. Re-entry costs

Is your professional wardrobe too old or will you be aiming for a job with a casual atmosphere? Maybe your body composition has changed since you left the workforce and you will need a few key pieces to get started. From new shoes to makeup, going back to work may have some associated costs you haven’t considered yet. It may be best for you to look into what amount you may have to spend to get back to work.

4. The financial cost of working

Aside from start-up working costs, you should also analyze how much it would cost you to take a job. In my case, the majority of work I find is downtown which is easily accessible by bus. If you have to commute by car you will need to calculate how much gas and wear and tear there will be (check the rate that the government calculates mileage for taxes and use that to estimate). Everyone should factor in their commute time when figuring out their hourly wage to make sure they are coming ahead. Sometimes a job may look good but when you factor in the time and money it would cost to work that job, it stops being so lucrative. What about the extra costs of maybe eating out more often or hiring people to do the work the stay-at-home-parent may have once taken care of?

5. The emotional costs of working

Don’t underestimate the emotional toll when a parent returns to work. Everything from explaining to your children what is going on to carving out personal time with your partner and friends can be a steep learning curve as you adjust to a new schedule.

You may also have some of your own demons to contend with. Questions such as “Am I capable,” or criticisms such as “I am not going to be good at this, I’ve been out of the workforce too long, ” may pop up. Any kind of life change requires a bit of mental work.

It may also be a challenge to get everything done now that you have employment out of the house. Some chores and other events may not get accomplished – or accomplished as well – now that you spend time working outside the home. Adjusting your perception of yourself as someone who stays home vs. someone who works outside the home may be one of the largest hurdles to get over.

The more time you spend brainstorming what kind of work you want and how life will change when you go back to work, the more realistic your situation will be when you do start working. Planning and thinking through some of the ways you will meet those challenges will reduce the stress that will come when things don’t go as planned.

We’ll get down to the nitty gritty of the what, where, who when and why in future posts but if you are someone considering returning to work in any capacity, these questions should help you start the process of brainstorming.

Is part-time better for everyone?

Is part time better for everyone?

Seems there is a push lately for more people to work less and have more time.  Personally, I am all for it.  I think if a couple each worked part-time they would have  a lot happier lives.  Just think of using that time to take care of our communities, play with our children or learn something new?