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A few Polar Vortex essentials.

Lately I’ve been amusing myself by searching “current temperature in Chicago (or Minneapolis, or Madison)” off and on.

Amusing to me, maybe. If the Polar Vortex made it 30 below zero outside my own window I wouldn’t be laughing at all.

That’s especially true this week, when the worst cold (as in “rhinovirus”) in living memory knocked me off my pins. Since Sunday evening I’ve mostly felt like homemade shit and, despite the relatively mild outdoor temperatures (low 30s) I’ve frequently had trouble staying warm.

That’s why I feel qualified to offer some tips on remaining at least moderately comfortable if you’re living through a cold snap (or even just a cold).


Hot cereal


Oatmeal is my go-to grain. Didn’t feel like eating but I was getting a bit shaky, so I made a decent-sized batch of horse’s food and put it in the fridge. Over the next few days I heated up a few spoons’ worth at a time.

The theory was simple: If everything tastes like nothing, why not have oatmeal for lunch and/or dinner?

Incidentally, this was frugal oatmeal: thick-cut rolled oats from the health-food section for 68 cents a pound. The stuff invariably goes on sale near the beginning of the school year, so keep an eye out if your local supermarket has a bulk foods section. This year I was still in Phoenix, but DF was looking out for me. He bought 30 pounds of oats and stored them in big jars in the basement.

Start the day out with a hot breakfast, or make it for a midday or bedtime snack. It’s really good. Oh, and adding a few chocolate chips to the oatmeal makes it extra-enticing. I’m told.



Hot soup


Or stew, or chili. In my case, I have been working on a giant can of store-brand chicken noodle soup bought for 89 cents from the dented-can bin on “senior day,” which meant an additional 10 percent off. Even though nothing has tasted great this week, the warmth is still soothing.

We usually make our own soup, and it never tastes better than when it’s cold outside. Whether your preferred potage is split-pea or minestrone or beef stew – and whether you make it yourself or reconstitute someone else’s – you’ll find it very satisfying during a cold spell.

This is especially true if you start it in a slow cooker and come home to the aroma of a hearty one-pot meal. Or try one of those “instant pot” contraptions; I’ve never used one but have heard good reports. (They’re good when there isn’t a Polar Vortex, too.)




Layers of clothing


Cannot overdo the layers. Right now I’m wearing fleece sweatpants, wool socks, a T-shirt and a heavy robe.

If I had to go to a doctor I’d add some long-handles; I have both cotton and polypropylene, top and bottom. Long underwear makes a huge difference. I bought the cotton stuff from Amazon using gift cards I got for free from the Swagbucks rewards program. The polypro long johns I got at a thrift store (and yes, they looked unworn and yes, I washed them anyway).

Layers. Use them.



Heated throw


Sitting under it right now. This lovely invention is basically a short electric blanket with three settings and an automatic shut-off. You can choose how warm you want to be (“high” is my setting of choice right now) and wear it either as a cape or as a lap-and-legs covering. Ours cost about $30 at Costco, and was bought long before the Polar Vortex. DF just thought it would be nice.

One of my nephews tried the throw during a visit and fell in love. He had exactly $30 in spending money saved up, and prevailed on his mom to take him shopping. Now he flips it on shortly before bed and drifts off to dreamland in luxurious warmth. It’s an odd thing for a tweenager to want, but B always did march to his own beat. (Hint: He wears what some people consider “girl” clothing pretty much exclusively.)





Rice socks


Despite taking very hot baths the last few nights, I’d get into bed and shiver. DF has been heating up two rice socks, putting one around my neck and the other at my feet. The shakes go away almost instantly as those two little heat sinks emit lovely, steady warmth.

The rice sock, aka the frugal heating pad, is as easy to make as it sounds: Fill a tube sock or cloth bag with (uncooked) rice and tie or sew shut. Heat in the microwave. Go to bed warm.

Magnifying the effects of the rice socks are…



Flannel sheets


I got these shortly after Christmas last year, in the clearance section at Target, and what a deal that was:

  • The sheets were marked down to $13.98, and
  • I had $10 worth of Target scrip thanks to the Coke Rewards program.

We used them from late December until probably the end of April last year, and brought them out again in September. Despite the low price they’ve held up quite well: no pilling, no fading.

And my oh my, are they soft. They hold the heat from the rice socks quite nicely, too. While the Coke Rewards program has changed noticeably (lots fewer outright-free items), I have to say these sheets are one of the best things I’ve ever gotten as a result from that program.

All the post-holiday linens have likely been remaindered. But you can get flannel sheets as cheaply as $30 per set, or maybe more if you find a great sale. (Pro tip: If you have an out-of-date coupon for Bed Bath & Beyond, know that the store apparently accepts expired Qs.)





Hot drinks


The steam from a fragrant tea – to say nothing of the comforting feeling of wrapping your hands around a warm mug – can be ultra-cheering. It might even be therapeuticDepending on your knowledge of herbs, it might even be therapeutic.

Try making a pot of your favorite brew and adding milk or sweetener (or not), and pouring it into a good Thermos or insulated carafe. That way you don’t have to keep leaving the lovely heated throw to get up and refill the mug, or to reheat liquid too quickly gone cold.



Hot baths


As mentioned earlier, those ultra-hot soaks increase the core temperature (I was at 100.5 the other night when I got out). They have also provided some relief from the general malaise that accompanied whatever cold virus I contracted.

Generally I enjoy hot baths with ice-cold drinks. This past week, however, I just lay there and soaked. That’s probably because I’d been hydrating so relentlessly all day; since Sunday I’ve gone through a couple of gallons of tea, half a pitcher of guava-strawberry juice and who knows how much water. Your mileage may vary.

Some years back I read that ginger baths were a great way to forestall or improve a cold. Ideally that would mean fresh ginger, grated into a tub full of hot water. All I had was ground ginger so I gave it a try. The author of the article warned that I might feel “a slight tingle around the genital area.” Sadly, I did not.

Readers: Are you in the polar vortex? If so, what are you doing differently either to keep warm or to protect your property?


Related reading:


  • Frigid frozen feet
  • A good wash day
  • The frugal sybarite

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