How to Survive Grad School (while working full time)

Truth? I don’t 100% have the answer for that. Classes started January 8. I’m taking two: one on Mondays and a hybrid one that meets six Wednesdays a semester. For context, I’m at work from 8am – 5pm and have anywhere from a 30-90 minute commute, depending on the weather. And usually on Saturday night I help D with work from 9pm – 4am.

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So, there’s not buckets of time, which I’m trying to figure out how to manage. So I thought I’d write down my top 5 things I’ve figured out so far, to help me remember.

1. Don’t be Hyper Organized

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I know that this seems counter-intuitive, but the thing is: life happens. And it happens. And it happens. I believe in being structured and having a schedule, but I include in my schedule the chance to miss a day of homework. I think it’ll help me out to actually write out how I came up with my current homework schedule, which is working really well.

2. Get Good at Saying No

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Yep. I know. Annoying. BUT, here’s the thing about saying “no” that took me a long time to figure out: you’re actually being kind to other people when you acknowledge your own limitsIf I tell you I can do something at a time when I’m overwhelmed, I will likely only give it a max of 80% of effort. How does that help you? Whether that’s a conversation or a pie, you aren’t helping by giving only a portion of your attention of something to someone else. So, get good at “no.”

I’m a big fan of “no, because, and.” “No, I can’t come over because I’ve only gotten 10 hours of sleep in the last three days and I want to be able to give you my full attention.” “No, I can’t take on an extra project because I have four going right now and I wouldn’t be able to give you my best work if I added another.” People almost always are like “Yeah! That’s totally fine!”

Note: use this with your boss sparingly.

3. Sleep is Your Friend

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My moms cat is hilarious

When I was 20, I could operate on 3 hours of sleep a night and still submit/create fabulous work. Now that I’m just a few months away from 30, getting around 6 a night is a serious struggle. I will adapt, but I also know that if I drop below 6, or don’t get more than that on the weekends, I’m going to turn into a zombie who can barely make sentences. I am willing to forego a lot to ensure that I’m getting enough sleep. It doesn’t do me any good to be half-asleep in class, and it’s risky to be half-asleep at work.

4. Meal Plan/Prep on the Weekends

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I cannot stress this enough. You can totally fly through life and never meal plan if you’re better at choosing healthy options than me. I just really like foods that don’t contribute to my overall health and what I’ve found is that when I don’t have something already with me, I’m not going to stop somewhere and get a salad – I’m going to stop somewhere and get a fried thing, or a carb-filled thing or a thing full of refined white sugar.

On the weekends, I fill up four mason jars with fruits (I keep yogurt and granola at work), make three or four salads, bag fruits and veggies for snacks and plan dinners. I look at my class schedule and my homework schedule and use that to determine how much of whatever it is I’m making. I take leftovers with me to class and on heavy homework days, I make sure to throw something in the crock pot the morning of. This is giving me good, natural energy and saving me a lot of money.

5. Post Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing

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In undergrad, I had to get homework done. I needed A’s and I needed to get through it to get a job. That was it. I learned a lot. I had a lot of fun. But it wasn’t in my soul the way this program is. On some level, I’m in grad school because I can’t move up and get a better job with more pay without it because the field I’m in. That’s never not going to be true. But what brought me here is the idea that I cannot stop caring about children and education and the things that influence both. I would stop being me if I stopped caring.

And so all over my desk at work and all over my house, are these reminders that the purpose of me going isn’t to get it over with: it’s to be fully inside of it and soak up every little detail as best I can. That’s what will make the difference in the end.

 

Let’s Talk About Meat

Meat: one of my least favorite subjects. When I was 12 I announced to my mother that I was no longer going to eat meat. And I didn’t, for about three weeks. Eventually I caved because of a combo of not understanding what I was doing and my mother not being 100% on board.

Then, when I was 18 and in college, I mostly ate in the dining hall, and the meat was less than desirable, so I cut it out and stuck with it for about five years years until one day, I really wanted a turkey sandwich. Then I stopped again a few years later for a few years… I’ve gone back and forth like this for most of my life and learned a ton about nutrition and myself throughout the process.

Now, I eat meat two to four times a week, depending on the season. I would prefer to be meat free, but I have a series of competing GI issues that makes getting adequate protein from plants complicated, so I eat it.

I talked in this post about how I buy meat once a month, but I didn’t say much else about that. I came to that in part because of my relationship and in part because I found that I either end up spending more buying smaller quantities or I end up having more trips to the grocery store because I’d underestimated what I needed. Those last two things got old REAL quick.

So, about a year ago, I started buying it once a month and putting it in the freezer. But then I ran into two problems: 1) my freezer was full of meat and not much else and 2) defrosting things takes forever and is a pain in the tail.

And then I remembered the “book stacking method,” as my mother calls it, where you flatten everything out and stack it.

Say what?

I’m going to show you using a package of almost five pounds of chicken.

Step One: Figure Out How Many Meals You Can Get from One Package

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This is the pack of chicken I typically buy each month. It’s about 4.5 pounds and will turn into about six bags worth of meat, with each bag weighing a little over three quarters of a pound.

I’m using chicken as the example because I’ve found it’s actually the most complicated of meats.

Step Two: Label the Bags

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Every time I do this, I do it a little different. I always put the date, and sometimes I write chicken. Sometimes I write how the chicken has been cut. Usually it’s pretty easy to distinguish chicken from other meats, but since I do this every month, sometimes there’s leftover meat from the month before. So I always make sure to write the date down so that I know which bag needs to be eaten first.

I open all the bags up after they’ve been labeled so that filling them will be easier.

Step Three: Trim the Chicken

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If you like the fat on the chicken, then don’t do this. I don’t care for it so I always end up trimming it off. Rather than having to do that when I go to cook it, I go ahead and trim it off before I bag it up.

This is the most time consuming step in the whole process. You want to make sure that you’re getting all the white parts off the chicken. It should end up looking like the picture above.

Disclaimer: I’m not a spectacular chef, but I do alright. And I didn’t go to culinary school or anything like that. I’m sure there’s great ways to cut the fat off chicken that are much more precise than I do. I just know that the white parts taste yucky so I cut them off.

Keep going with it, and you’ll end up with two stacks: one of chicken and one of grossness.

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I’ve found that if I cut the plastic off the top, so just take my knife along the inside edge of the container, I end up with a good place to put the fat.

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Step Four: Cut the Chicken

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Once I have a little stack of chicken breasts, I start to cut them in different ways. Some I’ll leave at whole breasts (or I’ll cut one in half to be able to split between packages). Those will be for crock pot meals. Some I fillet and some I turn into cubes or strips to go on salad.

Since I’ve already done my meal planning when I did my grocery shopping, I have a good idea of what I’ll be using the chicken for. I’ve found it’s easier to cut ahead of time, since I’ve already got the cutting board, etc. out and I’ll have to cut it anyway to make it fit evenly into bags.

Step Five: Wash the Cutting Board

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I’ve heard many different kinds of things about using a wooden cutting board. It’s the only one I have, so it’s the one I use. I don’t put it in the dishwasher. Instead, I wash it by hand three times with dish soap and scalding hot water (I highly recommend wearing gloves if you’re not used to that). I usually also scrub it with sea salt after the first wash. I don’t actually know if it helps, but it makes me feel better.

I’ve had this cutting board for eight or nine years (when an awesome friend gave it to me for my birthday) and I have yet to get sick using it, so I think whatever I’m doing is probably just fine.

Step Six: Bag and Flatten the Chicken

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First, I put all the chicken into the bags they’re supposed to go into using one hand. So, keep one hand for bagging and one hand for touching chicken, or get someone to help you. Then, I wash my hands.

Once my hands are clean, I hold the top of the bag and hit the bottom on the counter a few times to settle the chicken to the bottom. Then, I lay it on the counter and press it into the corners of the bag. With full chicken breasts, I don’t do that. I just let them be what they are. But with everything else, I make it as flat as possible and then seal the bag.

Step Seven: Repeat Step Six

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I keep going with this process until I’ve filled all the bags.

Each month I also buy pork chops, steaks and ground beef. I tend to buy the small pack of pork chops that has six in it and only two steaks. Those are already cut and typically already trimmed so I just put two in each bag and place them so they’re lying next to each other when the bag is flat on the counter.

For ground beef, I usually buy over three pounds and make four bags. Once the meat is in the bags, It’s pretty easy to just flatten out.

Step Eight: Admire Your Handiwork

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A) It felt really weird to take a picture of the inside of my freezer and B) that’s basically taking up no space. Each bag stacks on top of the other. It’s pretty easy to tell from the colors which meat is which so pulling it out takes two seconds, rather than sifting through packages and floppy bags.

And, best of all, I’ve found that it takes about 10 minutes in cold water to defrost chicken, ground beef  & pork chops (steaks take longer because they’re thicker). It used to take almost half an hour! And, if I’m really on top of my game and pull it out the night before and it’s guaranteed to be defrosted by the time I get home from work.

I never thought I’d reach a point in my life where I was doing this or thinking about this. I got overwhelmed a while ago by the amount of food in the house that was coming in when I started shopping monthly. I was frustrated all the time by the freezer and the process of having to wait to defrost what I was going to eat.

This kind of prep (I guess it’s prep?) takes me about 15 – 25 minutes. That’s it. But making this change has saved me money, space and both cooking time and emotional time.

How to Plan a Grocery Trip

Usually on Saturday morning I do laundry and go grocery shopping. My Saturday morning has been halted a little bit by a combo of D having my keys (which let me into the laundry room and into my car) and my mother letting me know she’s not sure what I’ll be bringing for Thanksgiving dinner.

So I decided I’d use to the time to plan both my weekly and my monthly grocery trip.

A Little Background

I didn’t start doing grocery shopping this way until about a year ago. When I lived in Florida, I went once a week, bought what I needed and went home. Often I ended up going more than once a week because I forgot things. Typically I spent somewhere between $40-$80, depending on the week and if I needed shampoo, cleaning supplies, etc.

About a year ago, though, I noticed my grocery bill was through the roof and I couldn’t figure out why. So I did a very rough audit of my grocery shopping. I had started eating meat occasionally when I moved back to South Florida. And I often told D there was “more than enough” for him to have dinner with me, not accounting for how often I saved money by eating leftovers for lunch.

Plate / Glass Container / Bowl

So we talked about it. And decided that, once a month, he would buy meats and pantry/freezer items, and once a week I would buy perishables. We’ve found that this a) keeps us on budget because the desire to keep our relationship balanced forces us to look at the number and b) means that my dread for grocery shopping is turned into 20 minutes once a week, and 1-2 fun hours with him once a month.

How I Plan It

I talked a little bit in this post about using the sale ads and coupons to determine my groceries. That’s more true for the monthly list than the weekly. Week-to-week, there are certain things I know are going to be consumed: milk, fruit, vegetables, cheese and crackers. So, I’m more likely to just go to the produce section and look at the prices than to look at the ads. My baseline of what I get is so low (usually about $30) that if I decide to splurge on a super exciting dinner or need to buy both wet and dry cat food it doesn’t really break the bank.

But the monthly trip is a much more involved process.

Planning Essentials

It doesn’t really take many items to plan the monthly shop. There are certain things I know we’re going to buy: meat, potatoes, frozen vegetables, pop and quick freezer meals. That usually brings the cost close to half. So the other half is spent on “special” items (chips, cookies, spices, etc.). It’s the other half that’s hard to figure out.

Planner & Pen

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When I first started trying to figure out how to feed myself, I lived by the Meal Plan Printable made by Jen over at iHeartOrganizing. I still use it when I know I’m going to have a super busy week. But, typically, I just write a meal on a sticky note and put it in my planner. Since I’m just one person (with a plus one), I’ve found this to be a better method.

There are some standard meals I know I’ll make each month, but I try to add in two or three new ones. I know that doesn’t sound like much but I only cook 2-3 times a week. My standard meals are…

  • Tacos
  • Chicken Noodle Soup Casserole
  • Cheesy Chicken and Rice
  • Shake n’ Bake Chicken & Salad
  • Baked Pork Chops, Mashed Potatoes, Salad
  • Shepherds Pie
  • Taco Pasta
  • Steak, Green Beans, Mashed Potatoes
  • Breakfast for dinner

My main goal is to spend no more than 30 minutes standing in the kitchen, which is how these made the cut. I will work on actually writing down the step-by-step for each of these because who doesn’t need more 30 minute meals?

Slippers (similar here)

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I actually do a lot of walking while I’m trying to figure out the groceries. Okay, not like, a lot, but I’m back and forth between the kitchen table and the pantry probably 20 times.

But that’s really only half of why I wear these.

I’m what you’d call an emotional dresser. My clothes make me feel a certain way and certain clothes make me feel different than others. Slippers automatically mean home to me. I don’t often wear them anywhere else (except maybe at a family members house). So I wear them while I’m making the grocery list because it makes it feel more like a cozy activity and less like homework.

I decided a long time ago that whatever I can do to make this process more relaxing and less task-feeling, I’m going to do.

Notepads & Pen

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You could probably just use one notepad. I don’t though. I like to have one for the monthly shop and one for the things I know I’ll end up writing down that are actually for the weekly trip. I like to use this size of sticky note because it’s long enough to accommodate most of what I need, but it’s also small enough that I don’t get carried away. Also, the sticky part lets me prop it up on the cart baby-basket-thing.

Knowledge Base

There are some things you have to know and ways you have to mentally prep yourself if you’re going to plan out a month worth of groceries, at least, that’s how it is for me.

  • How much money do you have? I run my budget before starting this list. And I rank the list in order of expense so that if the cap is hit, the things that aren’t bought are easy to pick up if there’s extra at the end of a weekly shop.
  • How much meat are you (& whomever else you’re shopping for) going to eat? In this house, if D is eating, I make a pound of meat. I probably eat 1/6th of that, he eats about 3/4 (per the doctor), and the rest is my lunch for the next day. If he’s not, there probably won’t be meat. So, having a good idea about your schedule is key.
  • On average how much are you going to cook? This one is my achilles heel. Some weeks, I cook every night. Other weeks, not at all. I’ve found that, on average, I cook 2-3 times a week; D cooks about the same. So we’re eating a meal at home almost every night of the week. Before we were together, my answer was twice a month. So what I brought in groceries was a lot different.
    • If you don’t know how to figure that out, audit your grocery list. I think I’ll make a post about that.
  • Be prepared to list more things than you think you need. Every single month when I sit down to write this list, I find myself overwhelmed by how many things are written down. Then I remember that it’s for the whole month and it calms me down a little bit.
  • It’s okay to write vague ideas. Last shopping trip, I wrote down “frozen snacks.” What does that mean? It means snacks that are frozen – pizza rolls, tater tots, french fries, etc. I don’t need to list all of them out. I wasn’t going to get all of them. I just think it’s good to have a frozen snack on hand and when I got to the store, I bought the “frozen snacks” that were on sale.
  • You’re the only one that knows what you need. I once wrote “26lb. Granola” on a shopping list and judged myself really hard for it. Who the heck needs that much granola? Well, two people who eat it every day for a month need that much. It happens every week that I write something down and I’m like, “What is my life???” and then I remember, it’s mine. Then I keep going.

Where Are You Gonna Put It?

I don’t actually recommend doing a big monthly shop for non-perishables if you don’t have storage space for it. Prior to getting a bakers rack, if I had more than one box of pasta in the house, I was just annoyed every time I walked into my kitchen.

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Write your list anyway. You may find that many things can be frozen, or at you’re willing to find spots for your favorite cereal that went on sale. I day dream about having a beautiful pantry with beautiful containers holding all the sweet food items. But I live in an apartment and have student loans. So, for now, I’m making do with what I’ve got.

Shop the Sale Ads and Coupons

I’m not a couponer. I will never be one. But, you know that little coupon flyer that comes in the mail? Usually there’s a coupon for dish soap and batteries. I clip that. I always need dish soap and I don’t often need batteries but when I do I find their price overwhelming.

The Sale Ads are really where it’s at. Your grocery store probably puts theirs online (most do). Flip through it. What kind of long-lasting tubers and legumes are on sale? Cereal? Pasta? Chips? Don’t write it down if it’s something you don’t like. But if it’s something you do like that last a long time, write it down.

I usually start with the sale ad, then go through the pantry to see what’s missing, and then I use my grocery stores app to clip coupons for what I already wrote down.

It seems counterintuitive to clip coupons last. I know. What I found is that if I clip them first, I buy stuff I don’t like. Or I see the actual price of the stuff the coupon is for and I don’t buy it and I end up with a million expired coupons floating around my life.

That’s it

Use your planner/calendar/agenda book.
Make it a relaxing activity.
Try a fun meal every now and then.
Trust what you know about yourself.
Clip coupons last.

Here’s a little example of what a monthly grocery shopping list looks like for me:

Grocery List

How to Make Grocery Shopping Less Boring

I don’t like grocery shopping. I try to tell myself I do and it doesn’t work. But I’ve learned some things that make it more bearable.

Step One: Split it up!

I do two different kinds of grocery shopping: a monthly big shop and a weekly little shop. Once a month (sometimes every other month depending on the weather) I drop around or over $100 and I always buy certain staples that either go in the freezer or pantry. Here’s a little breakdown of what that monthly trip looks like:

Grocery List

So that’s a lot of food, but it accounts for usually eating with D, plus hosting people for dinner. I usually have left over of everything except chicken and vegetables. I’ve found that this makes it easier to budget and it’s much easier to grocery shop weekly for twenty minutes and only spend an hour and a half in the grocery store each month.

My weekly grocery list looks something more like this:

Get Some Groceries

Way more confusing. & mostly produce. This means that I can spend most of my time in one area, meaning I’m in and out much faster. The weekly grocery shop has turned into a game that I play, which makes it much more fun!

Step 2: Bring Minimal Supplies

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I bring a very limited amount of things with me when I go grocery shopping: reusable bags, grocery list, headphones, my clutch (similar here) & my phone. If you think about it, it’s really all you need and holding on to your purse just slows the whole process down.

Step 3: Treat Yo Self

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My grocery store has a Starbucks in it and when I do my big monthly shop, I definitely am all about a White Chocolate Mocha (or a White Chocolate Hot Chocolate if it’s night time). But I can’t justify a $4 coffee every week (that’s $20 a month!), so I bring my little coffee mug with me. Yes, I do feel slightly ridiculous. Sometimes I bring my travel mug instead, which makes me feel slightly less ridiculous. I’ve found that having a drink (even just some water) actually makes me feel relaxed, more than anything else.

Step 4: Rock Some Tunes

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My Driving playlist is my go-to for everything, basically, because it’s the right mix of feelings. I don’t always listen to music while grocery shopping if I go early in the morning. But if it’s the afternoon and I want to be in and out as fast as I can, I put headphones in and it helps me stay focused on what I’m doing, and also helps me to enjoy the fact that I get to pick through beautiful, fresh produce.

Step 5: Make it About Others

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I try to challenge myself on each grocery trip to find something for someone else. If it’s under $4, I get it for them (last weekend I got my Chicagoian dad a bag of this popcorn). If it’s more than that, I take a picture of it. My cousin’s girlfriend loves skulls and bright colors so I texted this to her with a little note that I was thinking about her.

My grocery store has more than just groceries; it’s more like a Michigan-only, super clean and friendly Wal*Mart. So I try to give myself a little leeway and spend some time in the Home section, not just strictly spend my time in the food area.

I also don’t always do this – sometimes I get all the way through the check-out lane and discover I got too focused and forgot, so I take a look at my coupons, and if I somehow ended up with coupons for baby formula or something, I pass them to another shopper who I see has a little one. And if all else fails, I give a stranger a compliment and a nice smile.

Step 6: Time Yourself

I know, I know. That sounds so weird. Here’s what happened: I usually do my grocery shopping in between loads of laundry. When I do the laundry, I set a timer because it’s in my apartment complexes basement and I will forget it. Like, for days. So one day, I thought to myself, “I have an hour. What can I do with an hour?” And my grocery list only had like, 10 things on it and my grocery store is 5 minutes from my house. So I tried it — what was the worst that could happen? I got groceries and laundry done at the same time! It. Was. Amazing! So, it became a thing. I do keep my timer on, but I also run the stopwatch on my phone to see if I can get below a certain time.

I tend to like any kind of game, and this is the most compelling grocery shopping game I could come up with.

Step 7: Don’t Leave Your Keys in the Car

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Do you know what that’s a picture of? My car keys, and my wet dress. Because in a freezing, torrential downpour the other day, I couldn’t find my keys as I was leaving the grocery store. I was partway through the parking lot and going through my coat and nothing. I don’t often lock my car, so thankfully, I was able to put the grocery bags in the back and shake my coat out and quickly toss it on the bags and didn’t end up too drenched (my hair would tell another story). I finally told myself to just sit in the front seat and start to retrace my steps, and when I sat down, I found my keys!

This a recurring problem in my life. Remembering what you did with your keys definitely makes for a more pleasant trip to the grocery store!

Step 8: Remember that it’s Okay.

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This was the most soothing image I could find.

Sometimes you spend more than you mean to (would it be good if I talked more about the money of things?). Sometimes it takes a literal 45 minutes to get through the check out lane. Sometimes you totally blank on the fact that you’re having six people over in the middle of the week. Sometimes you get home and learn that you now have seven boxes of pasta when you thought you had none.

Whatever.

That happens to everyone who goes grocery shopping and you know what else happens? Sometimes you spend less than you thought you would. Sometimes you get to talk to the awesome person in line behind you and make a new friend. Sometimes you end up making a super delicious brand new thing for your friends because you have no time to go back to the store. And sometimes, you learn that a friend is having a hard time and you just so happen to have all that pasta you can give to them right at that moment.

They’re just groceries. It’s only a very small chunk of your life and you’ll figure it out eventually. At least, that’s what I tell myself every time I go.