Have you ever found yourself starting the same exercise program over and over again because this time you’ll stick with it? How about chore charts or budgets? Our best intentions are derailed in the execution phase because we forgot to check boxes or track spending this week. I have found something to help… in a most unexpected place! Read more
Feeding your family in a new land can feel daunting. What began as an adventure soon becomes a hassle. Shopping and cooking take so much time! You have no dish washer and tiny cupboards. You can’t read the grocery labels. You can’t bypass the learning curve entirely but you can make it less painful. Read on to learn how.
Begin with Mindset
I still recall the utter gratitude a newly arrived expat expressed over a simple pizza I served her. The food was not remarkable. She was simply thrilled to have one solid meal idea that she knew she could cook herself in the days to come!
Start out by focusing on a few meals that you can repeat frequently.
Instead of asking, “What can I make?” start with “What chicken and potato dish can I make?” or “What can I serve with pasta and beef?” Those questions are much easier to answer. Insert a couple vegetables and you’re good to go.
Save gourmet dishes for later, once you know your butcher, baker, and produce vendor. For now, forget cooking shows and Pinterest. They will only taunt you.
In shopping and cooking, you have a learning curve ahead of you. Be ready to spend more time feeding your brood than ever before. At first, grocery shopping will be an adventure. Some days, it will be slow and arduous. At least once, you’ll feel like bursting into tears of overwhelm and frustration.
Some days, it will feel like all you can do in a day is feed people. It will get better. Hang in there.
Be willing to adjust your diet. And your eating schedule.
Your new home may inspire visions of handmade pasta and lingering over home-cooked meals. Mediterranean, European, and South American mealtimes hold an allure to us North Americans. They are slower, family oriented, romantic affairs. And they happen late at night. You and your kids aren’t used to lengthy dinnertimes. Build up to it. Help kids understand what is allowed (when to leave the table and play) and what is expected during mealtimes. Don’t get discouraged if your first few visits are less than magical.
In Argentina, locals eat around 8:30 pm. Kids’ activities are scheduled at our dinnertime: 5:30 karate and 6:00 gymnastics are perfectly normal. Our kids went to bed by 7:30, so the whole local rhythm didn’t work for us. We gradually shifted to a late afternoon snack (a sit down affair with the whole family on the best days) with dinner being just before bedtime (7ish, not 8:30!)
Take Your Tutor Shopping
The guessing game/ charades that is grocery shopping can be a learning opportunity. Move your next tutoring session to the market.
Observe your tutor’s interactions with the cashier. Write down what she says. Take notes as she explains what items are. Copy down translations. Record video with your phone if the cashier agrees. Then listen to the conversation, practise, and repeat.
Next time, write your grocery list and recipes in the local language.
Make it Social
It’s easy to feel you can’t leave your kitchen because you’re so behind. You’re becoming overwhelmed. And isolated. This is not good.
You have to cook, yes. So, reach out and do it together.
Some of my best memories of our time in South Korea are of mornings spent learning recipes in a friend’s kitchen. We made gimbap with our Korean friend, samosas with our African friend, pastries with a pastry chef turned stay-at-home-expat-mom, fried snacks with our Indian friends, Thai lunches.
Your local friends are probably curious about something you make. My Asian friends wanted to learn how I made pie crust. My Argentine friend wanted to know my salad recipes.
Get to know new friends by cooking together.
Your expat friends will have their own specialties and ethnicities. Your local friends can help expand your food related vocabulary. Any language barrier is less daunting while cooking than when you’re sitting, trying to keep a conversation going over coffee!
Cook in Batches
Soups, pasta sauces, browned ground beef, lasagne, uncooked pizza dough and pie crusts – these can all be made in large quantities and kept frozen. Cooking takes more time when nothing is pre-chopped, pre-washed, or prepared for you. Take a whole morning and make a lot. Better yet, do it with a friend and split the meals. Here are a few things you can cook in batches and freeze:
- Meals: soups, lasagne, baked pasta, casseroles, pies, baked goods
- Parts of meals: pasta sauce, browned ground beef, uncooked pizza dough, cookie dough, broth
- Sautéed onion, garlic, and ginger are the base for many things. Make as much as your pan will allow and freeze the excess one or half-cup portions.
- Note: plastic IKEA cups are just about 8 oz (one cup). I freeze things in the cups. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag or container.
You may use more fresh herbs in your new home. Some of these can also be frozen to save a trip to the shop when you need them in meat
- Cilantro inevitably comes in a too-big bunch that rots before I can us it. Chopped fresh cilantro, basil, or oregano can be puréed with a bit of water to form a paste. (So can garlic or ginger). Freeze the paste in ice cube trays. Once frozen, move them to a container or freezer bag. Pull out a cube the next time you have meat to season. Great for samosas, empanadas, soups, rice, tacos, or pasta sauce. (Thanks, Zahhra!)
- Fresh ginger can be frozen and grated as needed.
- Toss orange peel in the freezer. No need to delay or go shopping when a recipe calls for zest. I haven’t tried this with lemon, but I expect it’d work. (Thanks, Pragna.)
A Word of Caution
The caveat to my reliance on the freezer is this: Your power may be less reliable than you are accustomed to. Use your freezer but… don’t stock weeks’ worth of food. You might have to eat it all in short order when the power is out.
Thankfully, gas stoves work independent from the grid, so you can keep cooking when the lights go out.
You have a craving for lasagne but can’t find ricotta? Grated cheddar or mozzarella plus beaten egg can replace ricotta or cottage cheese, as long as it gets baked. Stir in some garlic and, if desired, chopped spinach. Layer meat/ tomato sauce, noodles and your “cheesy blend” for a moist, yummy lasagna.
Stir your cheesy-egg mixture into any leftover noodles. Top with meat sauce and cheese and bake for a delicious, quick baked pasta.
Cooked, puréed squash can replace pumpkin in pies and cookies. Bake the squash days a day ahead (while something else is cooking). Scrape out the soft flesh, purée, and refrigerate or freeze in one-cup or half-cup quantities.
The flip side of batching is this: a big bi-weekly grocery run isn’t going to work. Let it go.
Buying produce in Costco-sized quantities will end in fruit flies and wasted food.
In Argentina, as in much of the world, produce is seasonal. It travels less distance than the California strawberries we find on eastern Canadian shelves. Produce is riper when picked. It doesn’t last more than two or three days.
You’ll want to buy bread and produce every second day, not every second week.
Bananas that start to go brown attract fruit flies like nothing else. Peel them and plop them in a freezer bag. Frozen bananas can be added to smoothies or baking. They make a refreshing (though unattractive) popsicle-like snack. If you’re really thinking ahead, stick a popsicle stick or toothpick in before it freezes. Make it gourmet by dipping in chocolate.
Plan Ahead and Invest
As much as possible, ask what appliances are included in your new home before you go. Toaster, coffee maker, blender, food processor, electric mixer, coffee grinder?
Decide on your priorities and invest. Don’t wait until you’re six months in to decide you should have bought that magic bullet during your first week.
Do you need the food processor but can live without the mixer? Will you purchase one or two items when you arrive? Will you bring a transformer and all your own gadgets to avoid buying more?
When you move to a new place, and are learning a new language, there will be a learning curve. Remember that you aren’t just cooking and buying groceries. You are getting your bearings in a new town, practicing a new language, and building relationships as you go.
Start with a hopeful mindset. Be patient with yourself. You are learning much. Engage your tutor. Make cooking social not isolating. That’s how I learned most of my tricks!
What suggestion here can you try this week? Let me know how it goes.
When we move overseas, we’re not backpacking. We’re setting up a new home. We’ve done this often enough that our packing list is a spreadsheet. We’ve learned that certain household items are worth carting across the world. These can help your transition go more smoothly, too: Read more