Why I’ve converted to the Aldi way of life

I used to be a grocery store snob.

Here in the suburbs, chain groceries are everywhere. Giant, Safeway, Weis, Food Lion — not to mention the expansive grocery areas of Target and Walmart, where I find myself at least once (OK, twice) a week.

I loved Giant best. It was close to our first apartment and, after I took over grocery duties early in our marriage, I felt grown-up and responsible inspecting apples for blemishes and acting like I knew the difference between different cuts of steak.

(Ha! I used to buy steak. That’s cute.)

Spencer and I shopped together, making it our Monday after-work ritual. My husband loves trying new things, so all sorts of international items would wind up with our order. We were impulsive. I didn’t make a list. Didn’t meal plan. We wandered freely like the newlyweds we were, looking at each other by the deli counter. “I don’t know,” we’d say. “What do you feel like?”

The variety was captivating. Standing in front of the dairy case, 50 — heck, 100? — varieties of yogurt were at our disposal. Did we want toasted coconut or Key lime? Greek or plain? Dannon or Oikos?

I’d stare at the flavors and brands and prices. I’d cross-reference which was cheapest with my personal preferences. I’d think about what we liked in the past. Was coffee-flavored yogurt actually … gross? Did Spencer hate the mango? Should I stock up now, or wait until it went on sale?

Decisions. So many decisions.

Grocery shopping today — with a 2-year-old and 6-week-old — is … well, it’s a production. One we don’t make, given I go alone. I typically run out on Sundays, known to be the worst day to hit the grocery store with the rest of town, with Spence holding down the fort. I’m always a woman on a mission.

And I never leave the house until I’ve created a plan for the week. That’s how you overspend, you know? Wind up with all sorts of stuff you forget about, forgotten on a dusty pantry shelf. I sit down with recipe books and jot down what I’ll need to pick up versus what we have already to use up. Once that list is done, I rewrite a new list organized by department: the meats together, the veggies together, etc. So I don’t forget anything.

Have I mentioned I’m a little OCD?

This takes a half hour. I often write all this down while hiding in the corner of the kitchen that Oliver can’t see from the living room, thus granting me time to sip my long-cold coffee and put two thoughts together without toddler interference.

Up until recently, I was still darkening Giant’s door. I love Giant. The store is new and clean and rarely crowded. The parking lot is a pleasure to get in and out of. The selection — oh, the selection! — of produce is awesome, and every aisle is well-stocked. I don’t have to worry about Giant being “out” of … well, anything. It’s reliable. Predictable. And 10 minutes away.

So why the heck am I now schlepping up to an Aldi?

And … liking it?

My sister told me about Aldi years ago. Newly opened in a neighboring town, it’s tucked off the highway in an inconvenient and insanely busy location. From our current house, it’s easily a 35-minute drive. Always in traffic.

But I go. Because it’s cheap. And with two working parents and two kiddos soon to be in day care (don’t end, maternity leave!), affordability is important.

But even more than that?

It’s simple.

My brain is fried. We get very little sleep. I make what feels like endless decisions a day for my children and my husband and myself. When I go back to work in two weeks, that stress will multiply tenfold. (I’m trying not to think about it, really.)

At Aldi, if you want chicken, here are breasts and tenderloins. If you want ground beef, you grab the 93/7 split — ’cause that’s what they have. If you want milk, here’s a gallon of milk. Apples? Take a bag. You have to buy the bag. No debating Gala versus Pink Lady, you know? And how many of each?

When I first went into Aldi with Spencer, I was … well, I was a snob. Seriously. Where were my 10 kinds of shredded cheese? My super-specific favorite coffee creamer? My whole wheat sandwich thins?

It’s true that Aldi does not have everything. But you know what? They have most things. Many things. Enough for us.

And something strange happened. The simplicity, the lack of variety …

It’s been a balm on my frazzled soul.

There is something very zen about Aldi. I think it stems from the relief of knowing I’m getting out of there with my weekly order for less than $80 — absolutely, totally impossible for my family at any other grocery chain. I don’t always come home with everything on my list (fresh ginger was a no-go yesterday), but you know what? I improvise. We can manage. Or occasionally stop by the other chains for those unique finds.

If you’d told me last year that I’d be dragging my behind all the way to Brandywine to go to Aldi, where the parking lot is always full and the carts must be unlocked with a quarter (and I never have a freakin’ quarter!), I would have sipped from an overpriced latte and sneered.

Sneered, I tell you.

But I get it now. Megan Johnson, mom of two (!), harried wife and employee and daughter and sister and friend with a thinning bank account … she’s a convert.

I like easy and I cannot lie. It takes longer to get there, yes, and traffic is awful, but once I’m there? It’s easy, breezy, lemon-squeeze-y.

Now, if only I could find a quarter.


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Book chat: ‘Why Not Me?’ by Mindy Kaling

Why Not MeActress and writer Mindy Kaling is my vision of a talented Everywoman.

Confident but approachable, warm and vivacious, Mindy is someone I aspire to be more like. I love her sass, her wit, her style . . . and also love that she “doesn’t look like most women on TV,” a statement Mindy herself ponders in Why Not Me?, her second memoir.

I went into this book hoping the Mindy I know and love — wise, funny, a little quirky — would shine through, and she absolutely does. Her memoir is a collection of short stories about many topics, including her days on “The Office”; the hard work and long hours behind “The Mindy Project,” her (awesome) TV show recently picked up by Hulu; and many anecdotes about friendship, college, growing up, looking for love, self-confidence and more.

Though the only uniting thread seems to be Mindy’s insistence that we should be ourselves regardless of what anyone thinks and work hard for what we want, that was enough. That totally worked for me. This 240-page book left me feeling motivated and renewed, like I’d just had a cleansing cryfest with an old friend.

Plus? It’s funny, but in a warmhearted way. Mindy is hilarious. I especially appreciated that, while she is grateful women see her as a realistic role model, she’s not afraid to admit that, at times, she does wish she were thinner, bolder, more confident or [insert societal standard or adjective here]. That vulnerability is appealing — and also comforting. It’s more than okay to love and accept ourselves while still striving to improve.

If you’re a fan of Kaling, Why Not Me? is a book you’ll likely savor. Having not read her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (I know: way behind), I can’t compare the two — but this short, easily digestible and enjoyable series of stories definitely feels like you’ve invited Mindy over to give you advice on being a bad boss lady while she still owns up to some of her foibles. I totally dug it.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library


Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages


Book review: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple

Whered You Go, BernadetteHas a book ever just delighted you?

I’ve been fortunate to discover a few that would fall into that category, and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette would definitely top that list. From start to finish, I was enchanted by the characters, unusual storyline and hilarious dialogue.

Basically, it’s awesome.

In rainy Seattle, architect Bernadette Fox is raising her daughter, Bee, with husband Elgin Branch in a dilapidated house she can’t stomach fixing since a disastrous, high-profile project many years before. Smart as a whip, Bee is used to her mother’s quirks: her wry humor, for sure, as well as her constant battles with other school parents. And there’s the whole issue of her never wanting to leave the house, you know — a desire that pushes her to hire a virtual assistant to take care of everything down to grocery shopping.

When Bee is promised a trip to Antarctica, Bernadette turns to her assistant to take care of all the details . . . but as secrets are revealed, the trip falls into jeopardy. Before they can decide how to move forward as a family, Bernadette disappears.

Told through a series of emails and Bee’s notes, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is actually flat-out hilarious. Intelligent. Unique. My summary doesn’t do justice to how funny Bernadette is — and to be honest, I saw much of myself in her. Though I’ve been able to stave off agoraphobia so far, I’m quite happy to take care of most tasks online. If I can email instead of calling you, check yo’ email. Heck, I even order pizza online. (I mean, it’s just convenient.)

Bernadette is a really fantastic, multifaceted character — as is Bee, her hilarious daughter. Elgin plays less of a role in the drama than one might expect, but his behavior is also a catalyst for all that’s set in motion before Antarctica. Bee does most of the narrating, though Bernadette’s emails are at the center of much of the chaos. I loved them both.

It’s hard to explain Where’d You Go, Bernadette except to say it was an enchanting, entertaining, wholly different novel — one I enjoyed from start to finish. Even months later (how did it take me so long to talk about this one?!), I can vividly recall passages and crazy scenes.

If you can get your paws on the audio version, I highly recommend it. Narrator Kathleen Wilhoite does an outstanding job as the many folks populating this great story, and I loved her interpretation of Bee. Though I’m sure I would have had a grand ol’ time with the print version, too, listening to the story was a true pleasure.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio version borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘The Tao of Martha’ by Jen Lancaster

There’s a trend in non-fiction these days: the stunt memoir. Or, as I like to call it, the gimmicky memoir.

You’ve heard of some, I’m sure. Maybe you’ve read a few. But for the unfamiliar, the stunt memoir’s premise is that, for a certain amount of time, the author will embark on a personal challenge and then write about it — often in the spirit of self-discovery or improvement. Maybe it’s not looking at herself in a mirror for a year. Or trying to follow the Bible to the letter. Or following the advice of a women’s how-to guide from the 1960s.

And you know what? Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s enlightening and interesting and compelling. And sometimes . . . it’s a stretch. It feels contrived. There’s nothing interesting or fresh. Friends, it’s with great sadness that I place the awesome Jen Lancaster’s latest work, The Tao of Martha, into the latter category.

This pains me — it really does. But this book didn’t work for me. I waited for it to get funny or to illuminate something or to shimmer with the wit that has made Lancaster a bookish superstar, but it just never got there. And with only 50 pages to go, I resorted to skimming. Skimming. Skimming in a Lancaster book. That’s just . . . sacrilege.

The Tao of MarthaYou’ve probably gleaned Lancaster’s “stunt” from the title but, if not, here goes:

“Jen’s still a little rough around the edges. Suffice it to say, she’s no Martha Stewart. And that is exactly why Jen is going to Martha up and live her life according to the advice of America’s overachieving older sister — the woman who turns lemons into lavender-infused lemonade.

By immersing herself in Martha’s media empire, Jen will embark on a yearlong quest to take herself, her house, her husband (and maybe even her pets) to the next level — from closet organization to craft making, from party planning to kitchen prep.

Maybe Jen can go four days without giving herself food poisoning if she follows Martha’s dictates on proper storage. Maybe she can grow closer to her girlfriends by taking up their boring-ass hobbies like knitting and sewing. Maybe she can finally rid her workout clothes of meatball stains by using Martha’s laundry tips. Maybe she can create a more meaningful anniversary celebration than just getting drunk in the pool with her husband . . . again. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll discover that the key to happiness does, in fact, lie in Martha’s perfectly arranged cupboards and artfully displayed charcuterie platters.

Or maybe not.” (Goodreads)


So, okay: this book wasn’t bad. Despite my tone, a Jen Lancaster memoir is still often better than a non-Jen Lancaster memoir. Her battles in her garden, attempts to sculpt a magnificent trick-or-treating experience for neighborhood kids, poignant stories of losing a beloved dog? All well-told, and worth the price of admission. (And my three-star rating.) There were moments when The Tao of Martha offered up the Jen we all know and love and I thought, Yes! Here she is. Let’s do this.

But then . . . things just got boring.

The story felt forced. I don’t know how else to explain it. Jen is obviously not Martha Stewart and, haha, none of us are because she’s Martha and she’s perfect and blah blah, we’ve been here before. Haven’t we? It felt like a joke that had gone stale: everyone knows Martha is the shining beacon of all mere mortals can never accomplish. No one can be as lovely, perfect, nonplussed. So I guess I was waiting for . . . something more? Jen does experience some growth and actually finds she enjoys some of hobbies she adopts, but it wasn’t enough.

I just never felt invested in her journey, plain and simple.

If you’re new to Jen Lancaster, you can’t go wrong with Bitter Is the New Black. It remains one of the funniest and most heartfelt stories I’ve read, and follow-ups like Bright Lights, Big Ass and Such A Pretty Fat were also stellar. So while The Tao of Martha didn’t wow me, I can unabashedly recommend her works to anyone new to her humor. And I’ll still be eager to get my paws on whatever she whips up next.


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘The Spellman Files’ by Lisa Lutz

The Spellman FilesWhen I walk into the library, it’s typically with a purpose. Spending so much time on the bookish Internet means I usually have a shortlist of books I’d like to find and take home with me — or better yet, place on hold long before I darken the library’s doorstep.

But sometimes — very occasionally — I leave things up to chance. Live on the edge and . . . choose a random read without consulting a single review. Since I’ve methodically worked my way through many of my local branch’s limited supply of audios, I’m always on the lookout for something new — and the red cover of Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files spoke to me.

Isabel “Izzy” Spellman works in the family business: spying on people. As a group of private investigators working out of their home in downtown San Francisco, the Spellmans are used to delving into others’ secrets — and cataloging their own. At 28, Izzy lives in the loft of her childhood home with her parents and younger sister, Rae, a sass-mouthed teen who gets herself in scrapes.

The staff of Spellman Investigations is so good at what they do that it’s impossible to turn off . . . and Izzy herself wouldn’t know what privacy looked like if it smacked her in the face. Each family member is used to turning a deadbolt on their bedroom door and looking around corners to see if they’re being followed — and it’s never been a big deal. And when it comes to her line of work, Izzy is used to . . . um, circumventing the truth. With almost a dozen ex-boyfriends littering her past, she’s comfortable on her own — until she meets Daniel, a handsome dentist and tennis pro. Who thinks she’s a teacher. Because that’s what she told him.

As Izzy gets to know David and delves deeper into a 15-year-old cold case, her own family secrets come to light in the wake of a disappearance and endless trouble with Uncle Ray, noted gambler and drinker. As she struggles to keep everything from falling apart, Izzy will come to understand the true bonds of family — and whether she can ever really break free of the family business.

So yes. The Spellman Files. It is so. much. fun. I can’t remember the last time I was tooling around town, desperate for a few more errands to run so I could spend a little more time with this kooky crew. Izzy’s narrative voice is so wry, hilarious and sarcastic; my sense of humor to a T. As our narrator, the eldest Spellman daughter is so funny and realistic, and I loved the dynamic she shares with her parents and younger sister. In fact, Rae and Uncle Ray — her namesake — were two of my favorite characters in the book.

Though that would require me to choose a favorite. And I can’t do that.

I don’t read much mystery. For a true lover of the genre, The Spellman Files might not captivate the way it captivated me — but what I loved about the story was Lutz’s ability to plunk me in the middle of these dramas and give me full access to the chaos. Izzy speaks to us like we’re in on the joke, providing enough back-story on her eclectic family to keep us intrigued without overwhelming the reader. Young Rae was the perfect example of a character with personality bursting right out of her ears — and I loved it.

The book’s pace is brisk, marching us from putting out one fire to another. We’re told from the get-go that young Rae — who has recently become addicted to “recreational surveillance,” tailing strangers in alleyways — disappears. We also know that Uncle Ray, a cancer survivor, has a penchant for booze and ladies . . . and that the Spellmans are often required to retrieve him from his “lost weekends.” The pieces of a larger puzzle come together fairly easily, but I never felt like The Spellman Files was predictable. The shock of the cold case Izzy is working on wasn’t something I’d concluded on my own, though I can be a bit dense about these things.

What sent this book into awesome territory is absolutely the characters — and dialogue. Izzy’s interactions with Daniel had me giggling, and I loved a pivotal dinner table scene where Daniel meets the whole clan. Though the plot might not scream funny to you, I found this book downright hilarious. And when I learned it’s the first in a series, I actually clapped.

If reading has become a bit staid and boring for you, allow me to prescribe Lisa Lutz’s series. Described as “part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry,” The Spellman Files is the perfect cure for the humdrum winter reading months. I loved its San Francisco setting, too, and could imagine Izzy and Rae following strangers along the city’s curving streets. It was wickedly entertaining — and you can bet I’ll be grabbing the next one very soon.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416532390 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘I Suck At Girls’ by Justin Halpern

I Suck at GirlsAh, the first read of a squeaky-new year — and my very first digital read. Justin Halpern’s I Suck At Girls has two awesome distinctions in the wide world of Meg’s reading — and, you know, it was really funny. And secondhand embarrassing. And funny.

Halpern’s true-life account of his attempts at wooing the ladies is laced with humor and heartbreak. A quasi-follow-up to the bestselling Sh*t My Dad Says, Halpern’s story of his path to lasting romance is a quick, relatable read for both sexes. You don’t have to be a dude to appreciate the awkward fumbling of a teen asking his/her crush to the prom — and the terrible expectations that follow.

As you’d expect, though, Halpern’s caustic father totally steals the show. Sam Halpern manages to be both profane and profound, and his wisdom about Justin’s endlessly stunted love life is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Seriously, how could a man who cusses so constantly and effectively still be viewed as a modern-day philosopher? I’m honestly not sure, but Sam knows his stuff. And since he’s such a straight shooter (with his son and, um, everyone), you can’t help but respect the guy.

Anyone who has chuckled over the author’s popular Twitter feed will appreciate Halpern’s tales of growing up in San Diego, gallivanting through Ibiza, trying to impress Hooters waitresses and generally attempting to be cool. He succeeds. Halpern is sweet and endearing, and I was glad to know he finally got a (real) happy ending.

If you’re into humorous memoirs (me! me!), you can’t help but fall for Halpern. He’s our modern Everydude — a quick and talented writer who could be your brother, boyfriend or son. Though I haven’t read his rollicking debut focused on the wisdom of his wise-cracking father, it’s definitely on my list now.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 006202728X • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Personal copy purchased by Meg