Friday, August 19, 2011

Laminating My Way to Green Living

My husband surprised me with a laminator for my birthday this year. I never knew how happy this little machine could make me.  I've found it is an absolute necessity, especially for a homeschooling mom. And as an added bonus, it has helped us reduce our paper waste, making our family a little bit greener as well.

What can we laminate? I'm on the hunt for often-used forms and papers that can be laminated and used with dry erase markers rather than continually printing new pages. Here are some of the things I came up with so far. 

The grocery shopping list. By laminating the shopping list with columns for each section of the grocery store and hanging it on the refrigerator, not only do I ensure it doesn't get lost, but it allows me to use just one sheet, week after week, as I erase what was purchased and then add to it again. And when I happen to pick up an item or two between major shopping trips, I can easily erase them from the list. 

Rob's softball line up. As the manager of his softball team, Rob has to present a roster and line-up to the officials at the beginning of every game. By laminating it, we've eliminated the need to scratch out and change the list if someone doesn't show up for a game. A quick swipe of the finger and the line up can be changed quickly and efficiently. No more crumpled wasted paper in the dug out.

My planner pages. Anything I use daily from to-do lists and calendars to lesson plan sheets. By laminating these pages, I can stop myself from compulsive list re-writing when too many things get crossed off. This alone will save hundreds of trees.

Drawing pages for the kids. If you know my sons, you know we should own stock in a paper company. The amount of drawn-on papers that litter our floors every evening would make most cringe. I do try to limit their access and recycle as much of it as possible, but by laminating a few pages and allowing them (or at least the older one) to use dry erase markers for his masterpieces, we are doing a great thing for the environment. Then if the drawing is worth saving, I can scan it before it gets erased and it can be added to his digital art book. It saves me on storage space, too.

What other things do you use over and over again that could benefit from a little lamination?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Toxins in Deodorant

Before you think I've become an alarmist, I do not believe that any one product I am using in my home has the ability to cause disease on its own. My decision to detoxify is based on a premise dubbed the "chemical cocktail effect" by the science community.  

The number of manmade chemicals we are exposed to everyday through our food, cleaning products, clothing, cosmetics, personal care products, and even the air we breathe, really adds up. And while individual industries and products are regulated for safety, no one has studied the potential harm of the combination of all of these chemicals on our bodies with longterm exposure - until now. 

In 2010, researchers at The University of Gothenburg in Sweden released a report clearly stating that "the combined 'cocktail effect' of environmental chemicals is greater and more toxic than the effect of the chemicals individually." The report can be downloaded here. Since, assessing the actual risk of an individual's exposure based on the potential combinations of an infinite number of chemicals is impossible, the best way to protect ourselves and our children is to try to lessen the number of chemicals we willingly bring into our homes. 

If you haven't seen the e-mail going around since 1999 about a possible link between anti-perspirants and breast cancer, you're in the minority. Not even could write this one off as a hoax, leaving the status “undetermined”. So, this is where I begin my quest to detoxify.

I began my research with the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep cosmetics database, which rates a product's potential toxicity based on analysis and studies done pertaining to it's individual ingredients. You can search by type of product or by product name to find information about what it's made of, which ingredients could potentially be harmful and to what extent. While there are information gaps, this is the most comprehensive resource to start with, and it is easily accessible. 

For years, I used Secret Sheer Dry Solid Antiperspirant & Deodorant in the Shower Fresh scent. According to the Skin Deep database, this product carries a moderate health risk and is rated a 3 out of 10 for toxicity. (Ten being the highest level.) Upon examining the ingredients, it seemed that cyclopentasiloxane is one of the culprits adding to my potential toxicity. 

According to, cyclopentasiloxane is a type of silicone, and like all silicones, “this ingredient has a unique fluidity that makes it easily spreadable. When applied to the skin and hair, it gives a silky & slippery feeling to the touch and acts a mild water repellent by forming a protective barrier on the skin.” The EWG associates cyclopentasiloxane with a moderate risk of cancer, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, persistence and bioaccumulation, organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), and ecotoxicology.

Despite that impressive list, this is not the ingredient with the highest concern found within this type of Secret deodorant. It's the fragrance that the EWG seems most concerned about. The following warning is included on the Skin Deep database relating to fragrance: The word 'fragrance' or 'parfum' on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.” 

And while not directly cancer related (as the circulating e-mail claimed), the term fragrance on the label, which is itself rated an 8 out of 10 for toxicity, significantly affects this product's overall rating. (I should have opted for the unscented version of this deodorant; the original formula of the Secret Antiperspirant & Deodorant Solid rates as a 2 of 10 for toxicity.)

I've also used Dove Antiperspirant & Deodorant, Ultimate Clear, in the powder scent. (There I go with the fragrance again.) I thought I was switching to a brand that was better for my skin, but this product is rated a 4 out of 10 for toxicity. (They just have a great advertising campaign.) It contains cyclopentasiloxane as well, but also BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) as a preservative, which is a known human immune system intoxicant and a suspected skin intoxicant as well, according to the National Library of Medicine HazMap. There is even a hazard warning on the deodorant packaging itself, warning not to use the product on broken skin (does razor burn count?) or if you have kidney disease. I must have missed that.

I decided to scan the Skin Deep database for the best-rated deodorants to see if I recognized any of the names. None of the products rated 0 out of 10 were familiar to me, but some products from brand names such as Mitchum, Ban, SpeedStick and Tom's of Maine were rated 1 out of 10 and considered low risk. (Note: Not all products from these brands rated well. Check the rating before you buy. A good rule of thumb is to look for sensitive skin, unscented products.)

My husband tried the Tom's of Maine Original Care Deodorant Stick (rated a 1), but said he smelled by 2pm. I picked up a stronger version, Tom's of Maine Long Lasting Deodorant Stick in the Calendula scent. (Prior to learning about the potential toxicity of fragrance, of course.) It had to be a better choice than the mainstream (cheaper) brands because it's made by a “green” company, right? Wrong. Tom's of Maine is actually made by the Colgate-Palmolive company - surprise - and the scented versions of the deodorant line, like the one I naively picked up, rate 4 out of 10 for toxicity, with a higher price point to boot. I was better off with Secret.

I did make one worthwhile discovery in the grocery store deodorant aisle though: Burt's Bees Natural Skin Care for Men Deodorant. It's rated a 1 out of 10 for toxicity. And the company is local. Bonus. I bought it for my husband, but they don't have an equivalent for women. (Huh?) So, I'm making a wish list of products from the company Coastal Classic Creations for my birthday. I'll add the Wave Crest deodorant to the list now. It's a zero rating (and boy does the price reflect that).

Those of you who have experimented with making you own homemade deodorants, please feel free to send me your recipes and/or results. That might be the next step. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Go Green By Giving to Charity

We are in the the middle of a month-long shoe drive, with our dining room as the main collection site. There are currently almost 200 pairs of shoes in all sizes and styles, sorted and boxed, waiting to be delivered to Share Our Shoes, a nonprofit agency in Raleigh, NC. Sure, giving to charity is altruistic and commendable, but have you ever stopped to think about how green it is?

It all started when my five-year-old asked if we could box up his old shoes and bring them to a little boy who didn't have any. And then we posted to our neighborhood forum, our Mom's Club, our homeschool support groups and on Facebook, and we have been quite surprised by how quickly we filled up boxes, our car, and the whole dining room. But, it makes sense.

This type of drive does not require anything to be bought new to be donated. Everyone has old shoes laying around the house. And maybe some of those people were also looking for a way to get rid of them without sending them to the landfill. We are acting as recyclers - taking unused goods from people wanting to get rid of them and bring them to an agency with a desperate need to fill in both local communities and abroad.

It's a win-win-win-win. First for the people who efficiently rid their homes of unwanted shoes, then for the agency and people who will benefit from them, then for the Earth, whose landfills will be less about 200 pairs of shoes, and finally, for my son, who learned a valuable lesson in what a difference one little boy can really make.

What other unused items can you recycle by donating them to charitable organizations?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Vegan Ingredient Replacements

One of the mistakes I made when we started the Vegan Eating Challenge was to scrap every recipe I'd ever made before and start from scratch. This required a lot of research and extra time in the kitchen to figure it all out. It would have been smarter for me to veganize some familiar recipes and gradually incorporate new ones. Here are some tips for finding vegan replacements for non-vegan ingredients in your tried-and-true favorites, as well as some pitfalls to watch out for.

Milk: There are plenty of options for replacing cow's milk - soy, almond, rice, coconut and flavored varieties can be found in any grocery store. Finding one I was willing to drink by the glass was more difficult. I drink lite soy chocolate milk and save the others for recipes and cereal.

Eggs: If you are replacing eggs in baked goods, go for the Ener G Egg Replacer powdered egg substitute. Mix with a little water, as stated in the directions, and add to your favorite recipe for cakes, muffins, etc. If you need to replace the egg wash stage of the breading process (as in my favorite eggplant dish), use a cornstarch and water slurry. It will help the breadcrumbs stick better than water or milk alone. And, if you are craving your favorite breakfast dish or quiche, look for tofu. There are lots of recipes online for vegan scrambled eggs and quiches using tofu in place of the eggs.

Cheese: I recommend using Daiya vegan cheese in recipes (even pizza) for it's ease of melting. Be careful when looking for vegan cheeses! Most veggie or rice cheeses still contain cassein, a milk protein, so they are not considered vegan.

Breads: Look for bread marked vegan or ask your baker about vegan options. Whole Foods sells a prairie bread that we love which is vegan. Locally, Stick Boy Bread Company in Fuquay Varina, NC, has a good selection of vegan breads available. They are marked on the menu and in the baking schedule on their web site.

Dips/Spreads: You'll have to axe the onion dip for dipping your veggies. But, there are plenty of other options available. Hummus, salsa, guacamole, and bean dips are great substitutes, and if you really crave the onion dip, look for vegan sour cream and mix your own.

Sweeteners: This was a hard one for me. Cane sugar is traditionally processed with bone char, making it non-vegan. Turbinado or raw sugar can be used in it's place in recipes. Honey is also considered an animal product by strict vegans. Opt for agave instead if you're going by the book. Most coffee creamers, although labeled non-dairy, do contain cassein, a milk protein, and are not vegan. Switch to coconut milk creamers for coffee.

Meats: You can recreate many meat dishes with meat replacements made from soy or wheat gluten. Here are some options:

*For bacon: Smoked Maple Tempeh
*For deli turkey: Tofurkey
*For ground beef: Seitan crumbles
*Soy protein can also be used to create mock chicken salad and crab cakes. You may be surprised at what vegan options turn up at the Whole Foods deli counter.
*Tofu and textured soy are great for replacing the meat in most any Asian dish.

Just make sure you don't rely too heavily on meat substitutes. The whole idea is to shift your focus and find ways to allow the vegetables to take center stage. Some of our main dish favorites are:

*Eggplant. It's hearty and can be easily added to a stir fry, pasta dish or eaten on it's own, baked or breaded.
*Squash is a great base to soups and is wonderful roasted whole and stuffed. Spaghetti squash can be used to replace pasta if you are counting calories.
*Dark leafy greens are the most nutrient dense food out there. Add them to soups, sauces, salads, smoothies or stir fry them for an easy side dish.
*Cauliflower is now a staple in our alfredo-loving household. Using cauliflower as the base of our white sauces makes them much healthier. Once a caloric luxury, we can now afford to make them more often.

And don't forget the beans. Important for the protein they add to a vegan's diet, they can be added to soups and salads or they can star in many main and side dishes, especially our Mexican favorites made vegan.

It takes some trial and error, but the end results are worth it. Healthier food can be delicious. You won't feel like your missing out at all.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Veganizing - from Someone Who's Been There

For those who might be interested in incorporating more vegan dishes into your meal planning, here are some recipe suggestions to take the guesswork out of getting started.


* A typical breakfast for me is fruit over whole grain cereal or granola. I don't know about you, but I never have time to whip up a big breakfast. You can find a list of vegan cereals here.

*Oatmeal is filling and makes a good breakfast. Buy instant or make it homemade, just be sure to buy ones labeled vegan. Hint: The vegan ones won't have all that added sugar.

*My husband made smoothies every morning. You can pack them with nutrients by adding some dark leafy greens. If your blender can handle blending them smooth, you really can't taste the difference.

*For a savory breakfast treat, try scrambled tofu in place of eggs. Some recipes will call for silken tofu. Don't do it. Drained and pressed extra firm tofu is easier to work with. Crumble it in, don't smash it.


* The easiest packable lunch that requires no cooking is cut veggies and hummus. There are lot of different flavors of hummus out there, but you have to make your own at least once. My favorite incorporated eggplant. See the recipe here.

*Salads are getting a bad reputation lately. Well, if you're ordering a side salad from the drive-thru while everyone else in getting a hamburger, I can feel your pain, but good salads are creative and filling. You can even leave out the lettuce. There are endless varieties. Mix up your favorite fruits and veggies and add a splash of your favorite dressing. Have one with every meal. It will fill you up faster and get in all those recommended servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.

*Soups are another way to pack in the nutrients. Make sure you are buying ones without cream, or make one yourself. Spend a weekend afternoon cooking and package the soup in individual portions for your freezer. If you grab one on your way out the door in the morning, it will only need a quick zap in the microwave to be lunch-worthy. If you miss the creaminess, look for a soup recipe that uses avocado or squash blended in to thicken it.

*You would think being vegan means having to say goodbye to sandwiches, right? I did when I first started. The cucumber sandwich is great at a tea party, but I was looking for something...bigger. I found my favorite at a restaurant in Raleigh. The Remedy Diner sells a sandwich called the Tempeh Tantrum.  We were able to create something similar at home with toasted whole grain bread, homemade pesto spread, bacon-flavored tempeh, avocado and mixed greens. Delicious. Make your own sandwiches with roasted veggies, raw veggies or bean spreads. You can even buy deli meat replacements if you can't do without.


*Taco salad. It was on the table in less than 15 minutes. This recipe will remain a staple in our house for busy evenings when there's no time to cook.  (Note: I omitted the recipe's tofu "sour cream" sauce. If you want sour cream, I'd recommend buying vegan sour cream. It can be found in Whole Foods.)

*Eggplant Stackers. See my post on our veganized version from a Rachael Ray recipe.

*No-Fredo Sauce. Cauliflower made into a cream sauce. Who would have thought? It is delicious and a wonderful base for any vegetables. We added broccoli and mushrooms as the recipe calls for the first time we made it, and switched it up with some asparagus and green beans last week. Put it over whole wheat pasta or spaghetti squash if you're watching calories.

*Stir Fry. Keep soy sauce on hand! At the end of the week, go through the fridge and find all of the veggies that need to be used up before your next shopping trip. Throw them all into a large frying pan or wok with a bit of oil, add your favorite stir fry sauce, or make your own with some soy sauce, mirin, chili pepper and ginger (I prefer them fresh). You can also add tofu to this. I buy the precut cubes just for this dish. It's fast and easy.

*Burgers. You don't have to go without burgers when you give up meat. In fact, vegan burger recipes can be found in abundance. Made from beans, mushrooms, veggies, rice and grains or any combination of the above. So far, this recipe remains our favorite. In a hurry? The frozen ones from MorningStar Farms are pretty good. Even Burger King sells them.

Still need help finding vegan foods? Be sure to check out PETA's "Accidentally Vegan" lists to see what products you're already using that are vegan, or to discover other easy-to-find brands to switch to. And if you're looking for more creative vegan recipe ideas, there are lots of vegan food blogs online. My favorites are Fat Free Vegan Kitchen and What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?

Also, look for Friday's post on vegan replacements for non-vegan ingredients in your favorite recipes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Digging for Truth

Have you noticed that once you focus your attention on something, you start to see it everywhere? Before starting this green project, I didn't notice all of the products, services, publications, web sites and companies devoted to sustainable living. A shift of my consciousness is all it took to find a wealth of information.

I am seeing magazines on going green in the local coffee shop, finding more small businesses focusing on green products at the Farmer's Market and in town, my online home management system, Cozi, has posted a list of tips for going green, and even, an online store for bulk non-perishables, allows you to search for green and organic items.

The green trend has also made it to the mainstream media. During one primetime show, I saw advertising for new lines of skin care, hair care and household cleaners, all being promoted as all-natural. Getting my hands on green products seems to be getting easier, but are all of these products really all the advertising claims they are?

Armed with resources like the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database, my next green project will be to compare labels to find some new products that are truly green to help me in my quest to detoxify our personal care and household products. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The End of the Vegan Experiment?

We made it. For six weeks we planned meals without meat, dairy or eggs. And I am so happy we did. As a result of this experiment, we tried some new foods we never would have known about otherwise, added some great recipes to our repertoire, started exercising again, and lost weight. I lost a total of 15 pounds and Rob lost more than that. He is now training for his first 5K and I started taking yoga classes.

What Now? 

Rob is ready to remain a vegan for life, but in my opinion, a life without cheese would hardly be worth living. We are taking dairy and eggs off of our list of banned foods. That doesn't mean we'll be eating them at every meal, but they will be allowed. We may also add an occasional fish dish to the meal plan, but we will continue to eat vegetarian meals most of the time.

The Hardest Part

The one thing that I am looking forward to now is resuming more normal meals with the extended family. Our vegan experiment made sharing meals with others difficult, and we had to carry our own pre-made food with us wherever we went.  Just switching from veganism to vegetarianism will allow us to eat more of the foods others would be serving, even if it isn't always the main dish.

Over the last six weeks of this experiment, we celebrated Memorial Day, two birthdays and an anniversary. Hosting an event and making food to please everyone was a challenge, and I'll admit I had a couple of slips as a result. I did partake of non-vegan birthday cake, and sampled a slice of real cheese pizza. (Eating vegan pizza while watching others eat delivery was just too much for this cheese lover.) I did manage to come up with recipes for a vegan BBQ though, and I made it through the experience of ordering food for a car full of people at a McDonald's drive thru without getting anything for myself.

Is Veganism Healthier?

I believe it is the emphasis on produce that makes veganism healthy. Compared to our lifestyle of fast food and processed snacks, veganism was definitely a much better choice. There are still plenty of vegan foods that can't really be considered good for you, however. The next step for us is to compare labels. For instance, is the soy milk really healthier than fat free cow's milk if the cow's milk is coming from a local organic dairy? I'll let you know what I find out.

Shifting the Focus

In an effort to stay on the road to better health, our new focus will be on unprocessed, locally-produced, whole foods. Organics will continue to get priority. Fruits and vegetables will still be center stage. The Farmer's Markets will remain a weekly staple. Purchasing foods containing the least amount of unpronounceable ingredients will be the new goal.

So, this may be the official end to our experiment, but I wouldn't call it the end of our vegan explorations. The adventure continues...