Last year, when my husband and I realized that life as usual wasn’t going to be usual for a while, we started looking for alternatives to our normal foodie ways. Pre-pandemic, we made most of our meals at home but, soon, even simple trips to the grocery store became troublesome due to empty shelves and unwanted crowding. To help keep the trips infrequent, we signed up for a boxed meal delivery service.
Several years ago, we subscribed to Blue Apron’s meal kit service (read my impressions here). This time, based on online reviews, we went with Hello Fresh. We started with their Veggie meal plan (they offer several different plans) to introduce more plant-based meals into our repertoire and expand our cooking experiences. After a few months, we switched to their Meat & Veggies plan for greater meal variety.
Our chosen two-recipe plan provided enough ingredients to make four meals a week, two for each recipe option. Every recipe comes with its own large, four-color instruction card and perfectly portioned ingredients. Most recipes require a few common pantry items that are not included; like cooking oils, butter, and salt and pepper. We received our first box last September and continued the weekly service until recently.
What we liked
We were able to select meals in advance from a large variety of options. Our selections arrived on our porch in an insulated box every Monday. Each box contained food for two night’s worth of meals. This took a huge load off menu planning and shopping.
Meal prep was something we did together. There were always several components to the meals (protein, starch, vegetable), and a fair amount of prep, so we divided the duties to best assure everything was done on time.
The meals were, for the most part, interesting and varied, and not overly complicated. The flavors were good and the portions were reasonable. Hello Fresh provided some unfamiliar spice and sauce blends, which were fun to try.
Because the ingredients came in pre-measured portions, we weren’t left with partially-used jars of things that go to waste.
Several of the recipes were “keepers” that we will make again on our own. The recipe cards list the ingredients, amounts, and step-by-step instructions so they are easy to replicate. Hello Fresh even provides the ingredients for their special spice and sauce blends on their website.
What we didn’t like
Most of the recipes called for oven roasting. We don’t like heating the oven – and the house – unnecessarily. When we could – which was often – we used an alternative cooking method (e.g., rather than bake string beans for 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven, we just pan-roasted them).
Some of the recipes called for ingredients that we didn’t deem necessary. This is a personal preference but I, for example, chose not to add a tablespoon of butter – and the calories – to rice that will be covered with a sauce.
A few times, the supplied produce wasn’t very fresh and so we substituted our own.
Although Hello Fresh tries to be eco-friendly, it’s challenging when sending out thousands of boxes of individually packaged items. One scallion wrapped in plastic or two tablespoons of sour cream in a pouch seems wasteful.
We are big fans of leftovers and we didn’t like doing a lot of work for one night’s meal. Fortunately, we found that by supplementing the provided produce with some of our own, we could stretch many of the meals to cover two nights (or at least one dinner and a lunch).
Boxed meal services are becoming more and more popular and there are a lot of options to pick from. There are a host of websites that compare the different offerings to help you pick the right one, based on your budget and eating preferences. Because of the competition, most (all?) run promotional pricing on your initial order(s) to help entice you. Pro tip: if you know someone who subscribes to one of these services, ask them if it offers free boxes to friends they refer. I was able to pass on this offer to a few of my friends.
Although we have paused Hello Fresh for a while, we are likely to start it up again in the future, or maybe try another service for comparison. It’s a convenient – although not cheap – way to add more variety to your meals.
Please click over to Deb’s (The Widow Badass) and Donna’s (Retirement Reflections) blogs for their new What’s on Your Plate? monthly dinner (or breakfast, lunch, or midnight snack) party. Check out the various meal inspirations found there and share one of your own.
This is the fourth short story I’ve written that has the current pandemic as an underlying theme. The other three: Lost and Found (in five parts), Be the Change, and Gathering Storm, can be found by clicking on the category Short Stories and Poems, above.
I hope you enjoy it.
Who Needs Who?
The quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of single-family homes was just what Jen was looking for. After spending most of her 20s and early 30s living in the beach area, she had been ready for a change. The traffic, noise, and loud weekend parties—things that she energized her when she was younger—had started to wear on her. Then, Covid hit, and it all became too much. Her friends acted as if they were immune and continued to gather, unmasked and in large groups. She grew tired of complaining, and she knew that her friends weren’t going to change, so she decided to move to an area where she felt more comfortable.
The cute, two-bedroom, one-bath, bungalow she found was perfect. The house was big enough to have a separate work-from-home office but small enough so she could afford the rent by herself. The days of dealing with roommate drama were over. Her move in November was more than just from one abode to another; she felt like she finally had transitioned from her unmoored youth into adulthood.
Jen knew that she was one of the lucky ones. Her job as a project manager was easy to do from home; in fact, she preferred working there. The windows in her office allowed soft light into the room and offered a relaxing view of her front yard and the street. Although she hadn’t had a chance to meet any of her neighbors face-to-face, she was starting to recognize a few familiar faces as they walked by or worked in their yards. She was relieved to see that they were careful to wear masks and keep their distance when interacting with each other.
Jen was especially intrigued by the woman who lived directly across the street. She reminded Jen of her grandmother who, at nearly 80, was a tiny ball of energy topped with a puff of gray hair. The woman even used a cane like Gram, although, from what she could see, her neighbor’s brightly-colored cane looked to be as much of a fashion accessory as a walking aid.
One Saturday morning in mid-January, as Jen was cleaning her office, she glanced out her window and saw her neighbor walking down her driveway to retrieve her newspaper. Jen’s thoughts turned to her Gram and how hard the Covid restrictions had been on her; how lonely and isolated she said she felt. Jen kept in touch as much as possible, but she lived several hours away and Gram’s facility still didn’t allow visitors. Despite their distance, Jen was happy to have been able to help her grandmother get her first vaccine appointment the prior week. As Jen navigated through the convoluted and frustrating process, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for anyone who wasn’t internet-savvy and didn’t have assistance.
As she watched her neighbor, it occurred to Jen that she might need help signing up for her Covid vaccine too. Offering assistance to her neighbor would give her a great excuse to introduce herself and, perhaps, do a good deed. Jen figured that her neighbor probably felt as unsure of the process as her grandmother had.
Later that morning, Jen put on her coat and walked across the street. She didn’t know why she felt anxious, but she put on a big smile to cover her nervousness and knocked.
After a few moments, her neighbor opened her door.
“Hi! I’m Jen. I moved into the house across the street a few months ago.” Jen smiled brightly, before putting on her mask. “I haven’t had the chance to meet any of my neighbors yet, but I’m really happy living here. This is the first time I’ve lived alone and, although I miss my roommates, I’m starting to appreciate the quiet.” Oh, gawd, I’m babbling like a nervous suiter, Jen thought to herself.
“Oh, hello, dear. I’ve been meaning to introduce myself and welcome you to the neighborhood but, well, you know, this virus makes those things so complicated. My name is Cora.”
Cora put on her mask, opened her screen door with her cane, and stepped onto her porch.
Jen’s confidence faltered a bit as Cora looked at her with questioning eyes. “Um, well, I was wondering if you might need some help setting up your vaccine appointment. The online process can be pretty confusing and there are a lot of forms to complete. I was able to help my grandmother, so I’m familiar with the procedure.”
“That’s so sweet of you. That would be lovely. I’m anxious to get vaccinated but I understand it can be difficult to get an appointment.”
Jen breathed a sigh of relief. “Great! I can either help you on your computer if you have one, or you can come over to my house and use mine. You can enter all of your personal information yourself, so you don’t need to worry about privacy.”
After some discussion, Cora agreed to meet later that day at Jen’s house. Jen assured Cora that they could do the work on her laptop outdoors in her small backyard. As Jen walked back across the street, she was filled with satisfaction. Not only was she helping someone who needed her assistance, Jen was also hopeful that she had just met her first friend in her new neighborhood.
That afternoon, sitting at a small table on Jen’s postage-stamp-sized patio, Cora and Jen worked together to find a vaccine appointment at a nearby facility. With Jen’s help, Cora filled out all the necessary information and, when they got to the screen that announced her success, they both spontaneously let out a cheer and clapped their hands. They both felt like they had won the lottery.
As Jen walked her new friend back across the street, she offered to drive Cora to her appointment the following Thursday. Although she knew Cora had a car, she figured her apparent leg injury might make driving difficult. Besides, if there was a long line or any other complications once she got there, Jen wanted to be able to help. Cora accepted her offer gratefully.
On Thursday morning, Jen sat in her tiny kitchen sipping her coffee. She had arranged to take the morning off from work and was looking forward to spending an hour or two with Cora. Jen knew that her Gram enjoyed their conversations and she imagined Cora would also appreciate having someone to talk to.
A half an hour before they were due to leave, Jen went out to her car to tidy it up. She tended to use the passenger seat as a desk and there often were notebooks and file folders strewn about. As she opened the passenger door to grab her stuff, she saw a neighbor walk towards her waving.
“Hi, there! I’m so happy to finally have a chance to meet you. I’m Lisa, I live in the blue house two doors down.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jen replied, smiling. “Sorry I don’t have my mask with me, but I was just getting a few things from my car. I’m driving Cora to her first vaccine appointment this morning.”
“That’s so nice of you! She is recovering well from her bike accident, but I know she still has trouble now and then.”
Bike accident? Suddenly Jen’s perception of her new friend shifted. As far as she knew, her Gram never cycled, and, even if she had, it would have been well before Jen was born.
“Um, yeah. I helped her get her appointment. It can be difficult if you aren’t comfortable with the internet… you know, dealing with the various websites and forms. I helped my grandmother too.”
Jen was surprised to hear Lisa laugh. “You helped Cora get an appointment?”
“Yeah?” Jen didn’t mean for that to come out as a question.
“Cora and her late husband used to own a computer consulting business before he became ill and they had to sell it. She knows Macs, PCs, and the internet better than anyone in this neighborhood. In fact, if any of us have an issue, she is the one we go to for help. We are lucky to have our very own Geek Squad on our block.”
Just then, Cora stepped out of her front door and waved. “Good morning! I’ve been looking forward to this day. I’ll be over in ten.”
“Well, you two have a nice time,” Lisa said. “I envy her. My appointment isn’t for a few weeks.”
Jen went back inside her house to dump her notebooks and grab her purse and mask. When she came out, Cora was standing by the car. Jen opened the passenger door and waited as Cora climbed in and settled her cane on the floor. After closing the door, Jen walked around to her side, got in, and turned towards Cora.
“Lisa tells me that you hurt your leg biking.” Jen cringed a bit at the accusatory tone of her voice.
Cora sighed. “I should probably give it up at my age. My grandkids and I love to ride in circles around their cul-de-sac. It was a way to spend time with them outside. I fell several weeks ago and got a bit banged up. My son tells me that I’m nuts, and he is probably right.”
“Lisa also says that you used to own a computer consulting company.” There was that tone again. “That you are always helping your neighbors with their technical problems.”
Jen could see Cora winch behind her mask. “Oops,” she said with a slight giggle. “I guess my secret’s out.”
“You probably didn’t need my help making your appointment.”
“No, I didn’t. But I was so touched by your offer, I couldn’t say no. You also seemed a little lonely and I thought you could use a friend.”
Jen turned back and started her car. Her face flushed with indignation. She felt foolish. How dare Cora take advantage of my generosity? And, then to make it sound like she was doing me a favor?
As Jen drove a few blocks further, she began to reconsider her initial reaction. She was the one who made the offer, after all. She had assumed Cora needed help because her Gram did. Besides, she thought, I am lonely, and I really could use a friend.
As she waited for the light to change so she could turn onto the main thoroughfare, Jen looked over at Cora and smiled. “How about after your appointment, we stop for coffee? I’d love to get to know you better.”
This short story was written last year for a local writing competition, The Decameron Project. Entries, limited to 1,000 words, were to be previously unpublished and based loosely around the theme of the current pandemic. Genre, tone, and content were left up to each author.
I’m pleased that my story was chosen as a finalist and was published in an online collection. I am now able to share it on my blog.
As Sarah walked through the house collecting her shopping list, keys, and purse, she glanced out the window and saw rain clouds forming. Where is my umbrella? Thinking that she probably left it in her office, she entered the small room off the front entry.
She wasn’t surprised to see her grandson nestled in her favorite reading nook, his nose buried in a book. At 12, Jack was bright and inquisitive. Sarah loved having him stay with her while his parents were at work.
“Hey there, I’m looking for my umbrella. I’ve got to go out for a bit, but I’ll be back before your father comes to pick you up. Whatcha reading there?”
“In school today, my teacher talked about a pandemic back in 2020, and I wanted to read more about it. Mom was just a kid then, right?”
Sarah put her purse down on the desk and sat next to Jack. “Yes, your mother was a little older than you are now, about 15. Your dad must have been 16 or 17. They, of course, didn’t know each other back then.”
“What about Grandpa, was he alive then?”
“Yes. I wish you two could have known each other; you would have been great friends. Before Covid, your grandfather was the picture of health. In fact, we were going to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary by hiking the Camino in Spain. Those plans, like so many others, were put aside when the virus hit.”
“Well, at first many of us thought it was no big deal. Avoid crowds, wash our hands, that sort of thing. The outbreaks seem to be happening elsewhere, to other people. Then, your grandfather started to feel feverish and he lost his sense of smell. When his symptoms became severe enough, he went to the hospital. Since I couldn’t go with him, the last time we saw each other was as he was being loaded into the ambulance. He had turned 45 just two months before. I think that experience might have been what convinced your mother to become a doctor.”
“It says here that a vaccine was developed towards the end of 2020?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t widely available until later the following year. There were also mutations of the virus that were harder to fight. In the end, we lost almost 4 million people worldwide, close to one million in this country alone. There was so much controversy: mask, no mask; shut everything down, open it all up. Scientists and medical professionals were being drowned out by politicians and conspiracy theorists.”
“That doesn’t sound much different from today.”
“You are right about that,” Sarah said, patting Jack’s leg. “Well, I have to get going if I’m to get back in time.”
“Thanks for talking to me about it. I’m sorry I never met Grandpa but I’m glad you and Mom and Dad didn’t get sick.” Jack closed his book and looked up. “Can I go to the store with you, Grandma?”
“Oh, I wish you could, but you know you can’t. Unlike the 2020 virus, this one seems to be harder on younger people. We need to keep you safe.”
Sarah picked up her purse and checked to make sure her mask was inside. Then, she grabbed her keys and umbrella. Giving Jack a quick kiss on his forehead, she said, “We can talk more about this anytime you want. It’s your history too.”
As Sarah left the house she looked up at the sky, hoping the promised rain would come soon. The response to the latest virus, coming just twenty years after Covid-19, was playing out much the same as before. She knew that the protesters would be out, without their masks, yelling about their freedoms. She thought about her late husband and her precious grandson and said a silent prayer that the rainstorm would make it too inconvenient and uncomfortable for the angry crowds to come outside.
Here’s my latest short story to start the new year. I hope you enjoy it!
Be the Change
Crystal burrowed down into her comforter and peeked out, scanning her room. She wasn’t sure what she hoped to see, but clearly nothing had changed. The same mess of papers were scattered on the top of her dresser and yesterday’s clothes—and maybe clothes from the day before—littered her floor. Sighing her disappointment, she closed her eyes and rolled over.
At midnight, the whole world had collectively kicked 2020 to the curb. Leading up to the last day of a dreadful year, Crystal’s Facebook feed had been full of words of hope and clever memes heralding the dawn of a healthier, happier, kinder year. Crystal had her doubts, but she was willing to play along.
As she debated the merits of staying in bed where it was warm and cozy versus getting up and starting her day, Crystal’s mind drifted to her best friend, Annie, and the huge argument they had two weeks before. The force and ugliness of the words that were exchanged still stung but Crystal felt a satisfying comfort as she basked in her righteousness. A friendship that began in college was most likely finished.
When the need for coffee won over the warmth of her bed, Crystal threw back her covers and shook her head, trying to clear it of the unpleasant memory. If Annie was so pigheaded that she adamantly dismissed the facts and figures of Crystal’s argument, then she wasn’t worth thinking about. Annie could continue on her stupid path, and Crystal would continue on hers. Screw her.
Later, as Crystal worked on her first mug of coffee, she opened her laptop to begin her morning ritual of perusing her favorite news sites. Even though she knew better, she hoped that—somehow magically—the world really had turned over a new leaf at midnight. What if, suddenly, the political discord stopped, Black lives really did start to matter, and people chose to listen to scientists over talk show hosts? Yeah, right. Her news feed looked very similar to the one from the day before. The only difference was the pictures of large, boisterous crowds ringing in the new year; unmasked and close together. Idiots.
As much as she tried not too, Crystal thought once again about her blow-up with Annie. The harsh words they said to each other couldn’t be taken back or forgotten. It was clear that Annie wasn’t the person Crystal thought she was, so maybe it was best to part ways. How could she continue to be friends with someone so obstinate?
They both had kept pretty close to home since the original lockdown in March. Each had made occasional trips to the grocery store and pharmacy, but their interactions with friends and family were only by phone, text, or Zoom. Crystal had missed seeing her friend in person, but they agreed that it was for the best—not only for their safety but, the sooner this thing was over, the sooner they could resume their lives. Crystal knew this was especially hard on Annie because she had a granddaughter that she ached to be with.
Their blow-up happened mid-December when Annie let it slip that she was planning to spend Christmas with her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.
“How could you do something so stupid?” Crystal asked incredulously. “You’ve sacrificed for so long and now you want to throw it all away?”
“But I need to see them,” Annie replied. “All three of them have been isolated for a week so we are pretty sure everyone is safe.”
“PRETTY SURE? What if they aren’t? What if one of them is asymptomatic? What if you get sick and end up in a hospital, alone and on a ventilator? Are you pretty sure you’ll survive?”
That was the most civil part of their argument. From there, it devolved into heated accusations, personal insults and, finally, tears. When Crystal and Annie ended their phone call, their parting words held no hope of reconciliation. Crystal spent the next two weeks nursing her anger and disappointment. How could she have been so wrong about someone she thought she knew so well?
Stop thinking about it! Crystal admonished herself. Her ex-friend was stupid, selfish, and definitely not worth her time. She had plenty of other friends to hang with when this was over.
Crystal forced herself to re-focus on the New Year news. Among the stories of continuing virus surges, political fighting, and vaccine distribution challenges, a local story caught her eye. A young boy was in the hospital clinging to life. Covid, of course, Crystal thought. But, as she continued to read, she realized it wasn’t the virus, at least not directly. The boy had attempted suicide. According to his grief-stricken parents, the months of isolation, during which he wasn’t able to be with his friends or extended family, had made him depressed. Although he was expected to survive, his parents were distraught, knowing they had to continue to keep him away from others because of underlying health conditions.
Crystal was surprised at the sudden, overwhelming sadness she felt for this family she didn’t even know. She also thought about her own solitude, that of her parents’ who lived two states away, and Annie’s desire to see her granddaughter. On this first day of a new year, at the beginning of a new decade, Crystal thought about the kindness and empathy everyone was hoping for and realized that it could start with her.
After two rings, her friend answered, “Hello?”
“Annie, this is Crystal. I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Recently, the New York Times ran an article, Find Your Place in the Line, where you could, by entering a few bits of information, find out when you might expect to get the Covid-19 vaccine in the United States. After indicating my age, general health, and the county I live in, I discovered that I probably should tamp down my enthusiasm a bit.
There are 118.5 million people ahead of me.
Although a final sequence hasn’t been determined yet, whatever it turns out to be, I know that I will have a wait. Healthcare workers, people in nursing homes, first responders, the elderly, and those with health risks will undoubtedly be vaccinated before me.
And that’s how it should be.
But, also according to the chart, standing behind me in this virtual line are essential workers, teachers, homeless, and prisoners. It seems that at least some of these folks should be able to cut in line.
Don’t get me wrong, I really, really want this thing to be over. I want to see my friends without distancing or masks, I want to travel, eat in restaurants, attend events, and go about my life without masks or fear. If everyone could magically get the vaccine tomorrow, I’d do it. (OK, I’m lying… I’d probably wait a month or so just to make sure there weren’t any crazy side effects).
One of the drug companies, Pfizer, expects to have about 50 million doses available by the end of 2020. Since the vaccine is administered in two doses, 28 days apart, that’s enough for 25 million people.
Did I mention that there are 118.5 million people in front of me?
So, I won’t be putting my masks away any time soon nor will we book any non-refundable travel. But just knowing that there is light at the end of the tunnel makes any inconvenience or sacrifice easier to bear. We’ve been at this for almost nine months now. A few—or more—additional months of playing it safe will help us all find our normal again.