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 Snopes.com 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 TruthinAging.com, 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.

Breakfast

* 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.

Lunch

* 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.

Dinner

*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 Alice.com, 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...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Making the Switch to Cloth Diapers: Part 2 - Washing & Water Usage

The ick factor was never a major concern when we started researching cloth diapers. Once you've cleaned up after a potty training child, washing diapers will seem easy. What we were concerned about, however, was the increased water use necessary to launder them - especially when the directions suggest pre-rinsing, washing and then rinsing again.

Yes, our water bill did noticeably increase, but that is also a result of our family increasing from three to four people. I look at it this way: the amount of money we are saving from not having to purchase disposable diapers more than makes up for the higher utility bill. And using cloth diapers puts less waste in the local landfill and uses less overall energy in the manufacturing process than thousands of disposable diapers.

The only dilemma then is the moral one I face when the county issues the inevitable summer drought warning. Usually the limitations refer more to outdoor watering and car washing, not necessarily indoor usage for washing clothes and such, but here is what I do to lessen my personal impact.

* I only wash diapers when I'm down to the last one or two. This ensures a full load, optimizing the efficiency of our water use.

* If the diapers are heavily soiled, I stop the first rinse cycle once the washer is full of water and let them soak overnight. This makes the wash cycle more effective and makes the need for re-washing or extra rinse cycles less likely.

* Just as I don't hand wash the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, I don't hand wash the diapers before laundering them. If a diaper is heavily soiled a quick rinse in the sink is necessary, but most of the time it is not, especially if you are utilizing the pre-rinse cycle in the washing machine.

Another thing to consider when washing cloth diapers is the detergent. Diapers require special soaps that won't leave residues which would affect the diaper's absorbency. These detergents tend to also be free of potential toxins and are biodegradable. We switched to Country Save for all of our laundry and use Rockin' Green when the diapers need an extra boost to come clean.

So, although water usage is up, we are actually taking more precautions when it comes to protecting our water supply. The benefits to using cloth diapers outweigh the negatives for us. And the early potty training theory is just a bonus.

Friday, June 17, 2011

No Compromising (Well Almost)

Rob and I celebrated our ninth anniversary this week by making reservations at the Irregardless Cafe in Raleigh. It was one of the only local restaurants that would allow us a special night out without compromising our vegan diet. We were both excited to try it out - Rob for the famed appetizer, Vegan Sex, and I was looking forward to a good meal and live music. (There's plenty for the meat-eating crowd as well.)

I'll have to admit that as a teaching assistant in several remedial English classes in college, the name of the restaurant had put me off in the past, but after being there, I can't believe we waited so long to try it. Owner and chef, Arthur Gordon, claims he chose the name because after all of the years of having it circled in red on his college papers, he could officially use the word however he liked. We met Chef Gordon while he made his rounds through the dining room, and I must say I liked his spirit. He's a trendsetter, and a pretty funny guy.

So what did we eat? Rob indulged in the Vegan Sex appetizer, a stacked salad with layers of avocado, oranges, tabouli, sweet potato and jezebel sauce, aptly named by Gordon because it was heaven on a plate. Yes, I got to try it too, and I'd do it (I mean order it) again. We also shared the Mediterranean plate, consisting of hummus, tabouli and butter bean pate with toasted pita bread. Yum.

For dinner, I had acorn squash cassolette, which had so many components, it would take paragraphs to list it all. Suffice it to say that it was delicious, filled with wonderful roasted vegetables (some of which I normally would not have chosen myself), and beautifully presented in half an acorn squash over a plate of beans and beets. It was the largest fully vegan meal I have ever eaten and I was stuffed! Rob had the vegetable dish that most closely resembles steak, portobellos over polenta. He loved it, and hardly left any for me to taste.

For dessert, Rob went with the vegan fruit crisp, but I conceded defeat and had (non-vegan) sorbet, since I'm not a fan of cherry desserts. Hey, it was a celebration, and how much dairy could they have possibly packed into that little trio of bites? Anyway, I particularly enjoyed the raspberry black pepper. It was sweet with a nice kick and quite unique.

After the indulgence of this meal, and paired with my PMS, I have no weight loss to report this week, but I'm expecting a bigger number next week as a result. Hopefully, our last official week of veganism will be a fitting end to this project. Now, I just have to get through Zach's birthday weekend.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Making the Switch to Cloth Diapers: Part 1

After struggling with potty training our oldest child, and once we found out we were expecting again, my husband and I started researching cloth diapers for our second son. We had heard that since cloth diapers allow baby to feel some dampness, potty training happens sooner and with less difficulty than with disposable diapers.

That alone was good reason for us to make the switch. But, even if (or especially if) potty training doesn't happen sooner this time around, we will at least save a ton of money on the number of disposable diapers necessary to get to that point. And then there's the huge benefit of keeping thousands of disposable diapers out of the local landfill - something I am particular concerned about considering I can see the turkey vultures circling over the landfill from my neighborhood.

When we decided to invest in cloth diapers, I was lucky enough to get some good advice from a friend who had been through it all before, and who has since opened her own online store dedicated to providing information and products pertaining to cloth diapering. She answered all of my questions and I was able to see everything before buying.

After trying a bunch of different types and brands of cloth diapers, I can confidently say that my favorites are the bumGenius Pocket Diapers.



Pocket diapers have inserts that need to removed before washing and reinserted before diapering baby. While there are all-in-ones that eliminate this step, I find the pocket diapers are easier to clean and dry much faster. Pocket diapers are also Dad-friendly (as long as Mom reassembles them after washing).

We also use Flip All-in-Twos, also by bumGenius. The inserts for these diapers don't fit into a pocket, but lay inside the shell. I like them because if not heavily wet (or soiled), the insert can be removed, the shell wiped down, and a second insert added during a single diaper change. This means a whole new diaper is not used during every diaper change, cutting down on how quickly I need to get to the laundry. However, my husband avoids this type of diaper, because making sure it is fit properly while changing a wiggling baby is an art form that requires a lot of practice.

Both of these types of diapers are adjustable in their sizing as well, so we won't have to invest in new sets as baby grows. They use either hook and loop closures or a series of snaps to ensure a proper fit. At first I couldn't fathom why anyone would choose snaps over the easier (and most comparable to disposable diapers) hook and loop closure. Now that I have a toddler who has mastered taking off his own diaper in mid-stride, I completely understand the benefit of snaps (and/or padlocks).

I will admit that I keep some disposable diapers on hand - for the occasional use of a cloth-phobic babysitter, when we need to heavily apply cream to a diaper rash*, or for when Mommy falls behind on the laundry. (It's happened once or twice.) But overall, I am very happy with our switch to cloth diapers and it takes some of the Mommy-guilt off of me as well.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

*The use of diaper creams is discouraged with cloth diapers because they decrease the absorbency and are hard to wash out. There are some creams specifically designed for the use of cloth diapers, but I haven't found one that I love yet.

Next Tuesday, Making the Switch to Cloth Diapers: Part 2 will discuss washing and water usage.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Veganizing Recipes

Perusing vegan recipes has been a learning experience, and I have discovered some great new dishes that I probably would never have tried before, but sometimes you just need to turn to an old favorite, a good comfort food. Browsing online recipes, I came across a take on eggplant parmesan by Rachael Ray. Now that's a comfort food in my book, but not so much for my eggplant-avoiding husband. It wasn't a vegan recipe, but with a little tweaking, it could be, and Rob agreed to go along with it. (He's been much more open-minded to trying new things since he's been seeing such good results on the scale.)

You can find the original recipe here. I simplified it a bit, since this is definitely not one of her Thirty Minute Meals, and made it vegan, replacing the cheese with Daiya and omitting the eggwash from the eggplant breading process. This has become a standard make-ahead meal for me. I double the recipe (or sometimes more) and I've gotten the assembly line down to a science so that one afternoon in the kitchen turns out enough stackers for a couple of dinners and plenty of lunches for Rob to bring to work.

I start with the filling, sauteeing a bunch of rainbow chard with a little olive oil, shallots and garlic. Once the leaves turn a bright green and are slightly wilted, I take them off the heat and leave them in the pan until I'm ready to assemble the stackers.

I use jarred organic tomato sauce instead of roasting my own tomatoes from scratch and we omit the onion filling, adding shallots to the chard instead.

After the sliced eggplant has been salted and drained for 30-minutes, we're ready to go. First, I dredge the eggplant slices in whole wheat flour, then in a slurry of cornstarch and water, and finally in panko, before pan frying them. To avoid burning issues, you may have to wipe out the pan and add fresh oil between batches. As the fried eggplant slices come out of the pan, I arrange them on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Then I add a spoonful of tomato sauce, some of the chard, and a sprinkle of Daiya mozzarella, finishing the stacker with a second fried eggplant slice. When the tray is full, it goes into the oven for 5-8 minutes at 400 degrees so that the cheese melts and the chard is heated through.

These stay well in the refrigerator for a few days and can be frozen for later meals. I love them, and my husband, who would never before touch eggplant, has named this as his all-time favorite home-cooked meal. Mission complete. Thanks, Rachael.

Week four, I dropped another pound and a half, bringing the total to 11.5 pounds. (Rob is closer to 18 pounds.) Only two more weeks, although I'm pretty sure most of these vegan recipes will continue to be staples in our meal plan. Rob is prepared to be vegan for life. I am looking forward to real cheese and my coffee creamer. However, we are accomplishing exactly what we set out to do, kick some food cravings, get healthier, lose weight and explore a new eating lifestyle.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

USPS Goes Green

I finally got my hands on a pane of the United States Postal Service's (USPS) new Green Stamps. The stamps, designed by San Francisco artist and founder of the nonprofit Climate Cartoons, Eli Noyes, depict 16 small steps we can take to reduce our environmental impact. Ideas such as turning off the lights when they're not in use and recycling more aren't new, but maybe seeing them more often will be a gentle reminder to make these things part of our conscious routines. William Gicker, creative director of Stamp Development, says the intention was to send the message that change begins with each one of us, and it takes small, everyday steps to make our world a greener place. Learn more about the stamps here



The stamps are encouraging us all to go green, but they are also pretty green themselves. They, along with almost 100% of USPS packaging materials, are recyclable. And the Postal Service's Read, Respond, Recycle program provides a convenient way to recycle mail right in some post office lobbies. Last year, USPS recycled 222,000 tons of material.

In select locations, the USPS has also made free mail-back envelopes available for recycling printer cartridges, cell phones and other small electronics. And you can order free eco-friendly boxes and packaging for your shipping needs through the online postal store.

The Postal Service's green initiatives go beyond recycling, however. The USPS publicly reports its greenhouse gas emissions and its “footprint” is only one-twentieth of one percent of total greenhouse emissions in the United States. Fuel and water conservation efforts are also underway at all levels of the Postal Service. 
The USPS is considering global impact from the beginning of the manufacturing process and with the help of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) has achieved the Silver Level of Cradle to Cradle Certification. See exactly what that means here. 
According to MBDC, the USPS has been honored with over 70 awards for energy reduction since 1995 for recycling and waste prevention programs, incorporation of recycled content in packaging, and use of alternative fuels within vehicles and facilities across the nation. See more about these companies and their partnership here
Look for more tips on going green on the USPS web site here, and pick up your own Go Green forever stamps to help raise environmental awareness in your part of the world. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Vegan BBQ (with Dessert)

When everyone else was stocking up on hamburgers and ice cream, Rob and I were searching for vegan recipes that we could make and bring along with us to our family's Memorial Day picnic. We decided on white bean and rosemary burgers, thai tofu kabobs, and a salad. My mother graciously decided on fruit for dessert so that we could partake, but we surprised everyone by bringing a cake. 


This chocolate blueberry cake, pictured in the banner of the Fat Free Vegan Kitchen blog, has been calling to me for some time now. The picnic was the perfect occasion (excuse) for it to make it's debut. And it didn't disappoint. My mother left the table to take a phone call while I was cutting the cake, and returned a few minutes later to a table full of empty plates. Find the recipe here

The burger recipe came from here. They were delicious and I didn't miss the hamburgers at all. The skewers of marinated tofu didn't come out so well though. They needed to be grilled much longer than I had anticipated and they weren't quite done by the time we sat down to eat. In the interest of time, I took them off the grill prematurely, making them relatively inedible. They also stuck to the grill, despite the marinade. I'm not convinced tofu was made for grilling. Next time I'll try tempeh or seitan. But, overall, the meal was proof that vegan food can hold it's own at a BBQ.  

Diet Update: I'm down one more pound for a total of ten. Next week, we'll utilize more fresh produce from the Holly Springs Farmer's Market and reestablish the importance of the salad as center stage of our meal planning.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reducing Paper Waste

We joke in our house that we should hold stock in paper since we use so much of it. Sad, but true. Our little budding artists use reams of paper to create their masterpieces. Rolls of paper towels disappear before my very eyes. And I am forever printing something out to read, misplacing it, and printing it again. I just like paper. I'll be one of the last people on the planet to own a Kindle. I love the tangible weight of a book in my hands.

So, how does a family like ours make a dent in our paper usage? As with most things in our going green project, by taking baby steps. Over a week ago, the last paper towel was torn from the last roll left in the house. And what did I do about it? Nothing. I ignored it. I didn't rush to the store. I didn't even add it to the grocery list. We've just gone without. It was difficult at first. There are plenty of kitchen towels, but which ones would be used for cleaning and which for wiping the baby's sticky face? My husband still reaches for the empty paper towel holder and sighs (loudly) before rummaging through the drawer to find a clean towel for whatever spill needs his attention.

I found a couple of products that made the transition a little easier. We bought a couple of sets of Skoy Cloths – in different colors for different uses. Skoy cloths are made of natural cotton and wood-based cellulose pulp and are completely biodegradable within five weeks. An amazing fact considering they are also dishwasher and washing machine safe. Mine have lasted quite a while now, and although slightly stained, they are still usable for cleaning up spills and wiping down counters. I even occasionally microwave mine to make sure they are germ free.

We've also invested in some high quality microfiber cloths for kitchen use, which I promptly destroyed by putting them in the dryer with a load of towels and a dryer sheet. Never use fabric softener or dryer sheets with microfiber cloths. They'll never absorb another drop. Lesson learned. I'm avoiding microfiber due to the inconvenience of it for now, but am looking for another set of good kitchen towels for drying dishes.

We've gone completely napkinless for some time now – much to the dismay of my mother when she has dinner with us. But, I am planning to pull out a set of cloth napkins that have been tucked away in the china cabinet. Being able to put some things we already have to good use is a bonus.

As for the artwork, we are purchasing reams of recycled paper for drawing and printer purposes. It's a step in the right direction, but we're still using A LOT of it, and it's getting expensive. We have an easel with a whiteboard and a chalkboard, and have even painted a wall with chalkboard paint, but it still doesn't serve the same purpose as good old crayons and paper. And a day would never be complete for my four-year-old without a new set of drawings to hang on the wall.

I am making a conscious effort to print less - starting with a better recipe organizing system to cut down on the printed and then misplaced recipes that I later find three copies of stashed in a drawer. We do have an iPad, and if I can tear it away from my husband long enough to do some research, I'm sure it can help me keep my recipes filed digitally.

So, we're making some progress, but there's plenty left to be done. Now I have to work on switching from disposable to cloth baby wipes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Finding Our Way

After navigating the vegan waters for two weeks now, a new goal has emerged - to find a balance. Relaxing the strict rules of the nutritarian diet did help us keep our sanity, but not everything that is vegan can be considered healthy. Since health and weight loss are still a high priority, I'll need to go easy on the veggie cheese for a while.

I was able to find some organic, vegan convenience foods, but I need to remind myself to use them sparingly, and rely more on fresh vegetables for the bulk of my dietary needs. Even so, one of my freezer staples will always be Amy's frozen foods. All Amy's products are vegetarian, made only with recognizable ingredients that a child can pronounce. Look here for a list of all Amy's brand vegan products. I got hooked with the rice and bean burritos, but my new favorite is the Indian samosa wrap. Quick and delicious.

I also made some progress on the vegan lattes. Starbucks syrups are vegan, making any flavored soy latte allowable during this vegan experiment. After no caffeine for over a week, however, I don't recommend starting with a venti. I was up all night after drinking one at lunchtime. I'm still looking for a vegan coffee creamer alternative for home use (preferably in an Almond Joy flavor). Coffee Mate and International Delight creamers, though labeled non-dairy, do include sodium caseinate, a milk protein, on the list of ingredients, so they're not vegan. 

Rob and I did find a couple of options for eating out. We had a great lunch at Evos in Chapel Hill, NC. Unfortunately, it's one of only four current franchise locations and is a bit far to travel for a “burger,” but the restaurant is making great strides in sustainability through it's use of wind energy, Energy Star appliances, CFL lighting, recycled building materials and biodegradable packaging. It offers both vegan and conventional menu items using organic ingredients and airbaking instead of frying. It's definitely worth supporting, and it tastes good, too. 

Mellow Mushroom makes a mean pizza with Daiya vegan cheese. Build your own. There are tons of choices. We piled on the veggies and added some pesto tofu. It was filling and (almost) guilt-free. Thai food is always an option too. I was ordering tofu thai dishes before we decided to try eating vegan, so at least some things have remained the same.

And then there's the question of dessert. Before yesterday, we hadn't tried any dessert recipes, sticking to the plan to eat healthy. But, is life without dessert really worth living? VegWeb.com provided a recipe idea for this week's dessert craving, and so we broke out the ice cream machine. Zach's vote was for chocolate, so this is what I came up with:

1 can coconut milk (I used lite, despite the warnings not to, and it came out fine)
1 ½ c. Silk chocolate soy milk
½ c. raw sugar
¼ c. Dr. Fuhrman's cocoa powder

I combined the ingredients with an immersion blender and refrigerated the mixture for a few hours. Then, I poured the mixture into the ice cream machine and blended it for 20 minutes. We ate some right away and it tasted good, although I probably could have used even less sugar since the soy milk was flavored. The rest is in the freezer to solidify. I will certainly experiment more with vegan ice cream when the craving arises again. Next time maybe coconut.  

So, after completing week two of the vegan challenge, I am down another 2.5 pounds for a total of nine pounds. Considering how much pizza I had this week and the introduction of dessert, 2.5 pounds seems miraculous. I'll take it. I seem to be finding my way after all.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Patience Pays Off

Last week, as part of our seasonal maintenance plan, an HVAC technician came out to check on the air conditioning. Usually, when this happens, it takes the guy a few minutes to check the system in the attic, a few minutes to check the system from the outside, and a few minutes to process the paperwork. In and out. This time, when I glanced out the window and saw the technician unfurling the hose in the backyard after he had already been here for an hour, I thought we were in for trouble. After another fifteen minutes, I decided to go outside to investigate.

“Taking it apart is easy. It’s putting it back together that’s the hard part,” he said without looking up from what he was doing. Oh goodness. He must be new at this. He was with us for a total of two hours – four times longer than the usual technician – and of course, I was starting to get annoyed. My whole morning was shot.

However, I had a pleasant surprise a couple of days later. I was cold. I knew I wasn't sick, so I checked the thermostat. It hadn’t been touched. We keep it set to 74 degrees – the absolute limit of my indoor heat tolerability. But, here I was, feeling a chill. Unbelievable.

The new guy is now my hero. He took the extra time to do something no other technician (or husband for that matter) had ever done before. Instead of just giving the filters a quick spray, he took the whole thing apart and rinsed the coils clean with the hose. The result was such efficiency of operation that I could comfortably move the thermostat up another couple of degrees. 

Doing this will decrease our energy usage and save us money - according to the North Carolina State Energy Office, up to 1-3% of total cooling costs per degree change. And if I can move it up another degree or two, Progress Energy estimates my savings to be up to 5% of my total cooling cost for every degree over 78 degrees. Just think of how much my impatience would have cost me this time. I should write that technician a thank you note.  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Saved by Seitan

Yes, when ground, it looks like wet dog food. And yes, I was scared it would turn out to be another of my failed recipes this week. But, hallelujah for seitan!

I was emotionally drained and close to throwing in the towel. I knew it would be difficult to give up favorite foods, but that's not even the hardest part. The hardest part is not being able to throw in a frozen meal at the end of a long day, or grab a quick snack from the pantry, or pack a lunch without spending half an hour cooking the night before. The hardest part (especially for a person who does not like and is not good at cooking) is all of the time spent in the kitchen. But last night, I found my miracle.

Seitan. The pronunciation throws me off a bit, but this food - made from wheat gluten - saved me. I found a  recipe that claimed to be quick and easy on the forums of VegWeb.com and it truly was on the table for dinner in 10 minutes. See the recipe here.

Some shredded romaine, taco seasoning, salsa, a can of black beans and some multigrain organic tortilla chips from Garden of Eatin, and I had a taco salad. (I, of course, threw a bit of soy cheese on the top, too.) As a meat replacement, it could have fooled me. Well, maybe not fooled me, but it was definitely a good substitute.

Ground seitan was easy to work with. Right out of the package into the skillet, just long enough to spice it up and heat it through. The one I bought cost $3.19 for 8 oz. at Whole Foods, which was enough for our dinner for two. Now, I'll need to experiment with other forms of seitan as well.  Maybe I'll make gyros or fajitas next. I think I can do this after all.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Bland

First, the good news. I did manage to lose over three pounds in the first three days of our vegan detox, and my husband lost more than five. You just can't argue with results.

The bad news? I have NO idea what I'm doing and it shows. I'm learning as I go, which, of course, means I spent an obscene amount of time in the kitchen over the last few days. I suppose if most of the recipes I whipped had actually been edible, I would consider it time well spent, but apparently flavor was taking a backseat to nutritional value here.

My husband choked down most of them, not wanting my efforts (or the grocery budget) to have been for naught. His support and encouragement is all the kept me going after spending four hours making soups to freeze that came out all wrong. I think the best thing to come of this experiment won't be the weight loss after all, but the teamwork. Nothing brings a couple closer than working together toward the same goal.

So, my husband and I are spending lots of time together trying to figure this thing out, but it has been so time consuming that my kids hardly recognize me. Not good. Six weeks of being confined to the kitchen? Something has got to change.

Going forward we'll be making a few minor changes. I'm not admitting defeat, just making the plan livable. We are now allowing small amounts of oil for cooking only. We'll stick to oil-free salad dressings, but the water stir frying is difficult, and in my experience, mushy. This is still vegan, just not a strict adherence to Dr. Joel Fuhrman's Eat to Live program.

Along the same lines, I am making an exception for a couple of natural sweeteners, such as honey and agave nectar, to be used in small quantities for sauces and smoothies. Making these changes opens up a whole new world of recipes, hopefully allowing me to spend less time worrying about food and more time playing with the kids.

As a result, the weight loss might not be as aggressive, but my sanity will remain intact and we'll be more likely to see this project out to its end.

What I've learned so far:

* Never go to the State Farmer's Market on a Saturday. The crowds are unbelievable, parking is nearly impossible, and the prices are higher on the weekends.

* Keep it simple. When it takes six cashiers at Whole Foods to identify something in your cart, you're probably in over your head.

* There is not an easy way to recreate a vegan Almond Joy latte. Any suggestions?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Vegan Equals Frugal?

I've always associated going green with being frugal. The two concepts just seemed to go together, until now. I understand that long-term savings will often come through for me in the end, but the initial financial output can be intimidating. At the very least it's putting a cramp in my ability to consume less.

Case in point: prepping for our veganism. Let's just say, Zach isn't the only one who needs a new lunchbox. Rob will have to take lunch with him from now on (a courageous change I applaud – as long as he stops leaving it on the counter when he leaves for work). But, my mismatched, lidless tupperware collection seems unable to take on the job. Enter a fabulous sale at the grocery store on Lock & Lock containers, and the spending begins. 

Then comes restocking the pantry. We have been trying to use up everything that would be considered off-limits for the next six weeks – both in an effort to reduce waste and get rid of temptations. The Postal Service's Stamp Out Hunger food drive tomorrow will take care of the rest. It seemed like a good idea, but now we are left with having to stock the fridge, freezer and pantry from scratch. Even our condiment choices and dressings need to be replaced. On the bright side, the kitchen has never been so clean empty.

We're starting to pack the fridge with veggie goodness, but there is an unmistakable balance necessary here – keep on hand enough vegetation for each of us to eat as close as possible to the goal of 2 pounds of produce per day without having it rot in the fridge before we get a chance to eat it. It looks like this may require grocery shopping more than once a week. How does adding another day of errands affect the bottom line when gas prices are just under $4 per gallon? Ugh.

I'm not used to doing price comparisons when I shop. I prefer to get everything in one place, even if something is on sale for less elsewhere. I'm curious though to find out where the best deals are when it comes to good produce. Thankfully, the local Farmer's Markets are getting into the swing of things, so I have plenty of options for fresh, local, organic fruits and vegetables, supplemented by Whole Foods when necessary.

Even with the pantry staples, seasonings and dressings, I believe a side by side price comparison of my typical grocery cart containing meat and snack foods would still run higher than a cart full of produce – even organic produce. I'll have to hold onto some receipts for fact-checking on that one.

But the real savings comes in the form of eating out less. There are still vegan restaurant choices available, but not many in our immediate vicinity, which should put an end to the “I don't feel like cooking, let's just get take-out” syndrome we had been experiencing. Now that there will always be salad fixings on hand and soup in the freezer, throwing together a quick dinner should still be possible without cooking a large main dish. The budget is saved. 

My prediction is that eating vegan will give us the kick in the pants we need to get our spending on food under control. Good for our health and our wallets.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Sneeze Test

As a sufferer of severe allergies of both the seasonal and animal varieties, you'd think I'd be better at changing the central air filters. It should be high on the priority list, but, the truth is, I usually only notice that they are (over)due to be changed, when the sneezing increases in frequency. Not the most reliable system, I admit.

Changing the filters frequently is important, and not just for trapping allergens. According to the energy efficiency expert who inspected our house, routinely changing the filters keeps the heating and air conditioning coils free of dust and particulates so the unit can work more efficiently and use less power to do its job. That means a smaller carbon footprint, and less money out of my pocket.

But, I have a hard enough time remembering today's to-do list, let alone items to be done months in the future.  And I can never recall if I bought the filters that need to be changed monthly, or the ones that can go every three months.

So, I am starting a new system (tonight, when my husband arrives home from work with the emergency new filters). Email reminders. If there's one thing I do every day without fail, it's check my email, so why not put it to work sending me reminders to get the important things done? I am using a free online program called Toodledo. Find it here. But, I'm sure there are many other programs, including Google Calendar, that will work as well and can be easily integrated into your current scheduling and appointment system.

With Toodledo, I can set a "change filters" reminder to be emailed to me months in advance, and one a week before they're due to be changed as well, so I remember to buy them ahead of time. It's one less thing I have to remember, and now I won't leave it up to the sneeze test.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Me? Vegan?

Let me start by saying that I completely admire people who have committed to the vegan lifestyle and can carry it out gracefully, without the anxiety and overwhelming frustration I'm currently feeling. Maybe it's just because I'm new at this, or maybe it's the looming deadline. Let me explain.

My husband and I have decided to eat vegan for six weeks, as outlined by Dr. Fuhrman in the book, Eat to Live. I'm not quite sure at this point how we arrived at that decision, together and at the same time, but now there's no turning back.

Actually, this is not just a vegan diet, it is nutritarian, which eliminates all animal products, yes, but also oils, and sweeteners. (Those of you who know me well can stop laughing now.) My first questions was “How does one cook vegetables without any oil?” followed closely by “What the hell can I put in my coffee?!”

I know there are people out there who have made a smooth transition from a pantry full of processed snacks and junk food to a healthier, organic and earth-friendly diet. I am not one of them. The convenience monster is already rearing it's ugly head in my kitchen as I try to prep for the upcoming weeks. Making everything from whole foods, rather than snagging an individually wrapped snack,  is going to be a stretch for me. 

We made a family trip to Whole Foods this weekend to stock up, and it was a harrowing experience. First of all, this seems to be an activity best accomplished without the kids in tow, especially around nap time. But even without that distraction, I end up circling the aisles, baffled. The store seems better suited for the kind of woman who can walk in without a plan, see what looks good, and walk out again with a basket of fresh ingredients for a wonderful meal. Again, that's not me.

My process begins much earlier, perusing recipes and writing shopping lists. And this is an especially difficult task when so many of your ingredients are perishable. There's no switching meal plans around mid-week without losing vegetables to rot. A shopping list does come in handy though when you circle past the same stock boy for the ninth time. Just pretend you're reading and didn't see the pity in his eyes. Getting to know where everything is and why the cereal bars are actually in three different places is going to take some time. 

On the bright side, I did find salad dressing with no oil in it on this trip. That is one less thing to worry about for this nutritarian challenge. And I picked up ground flax seed, which can supposedly be substituted for oil in a stir fry when a little water is added. (I'll keep you posted on that.)

But, I think the easiest way to up our fresh, local, organic veggie intake is not to shop more often but to double the size of our weekly box from the CSA, Papa Spuds. This way, I can plan the weekly menu while I see what produce is available for the week and then rest easy until the order arrives on my doorstep. Nap time will remain intact. However, keeping myself from using the extra CSA points to order Stick Boy Bread Company's chocolate croissants is a whole other issue. Wish us luck.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Backyard Garden


With the date of the last frost behind us and a beautiful weather forecast in store, this past weekend was the perfect time for getting outside and getting our hands dirty in the garden. We spent the better part of Sunday in the backyard, repotting the herbs, seeding the garden bed and transplanting the seedlings that have been growing in our entryway since February.

This will be our family's third year of backyard gardening, and we're hoping this season will be more successful than the previous years. So far, we have proven that we can grow cucumbers. Period. 

Our lone bean plant did well the first year, offering up a grand harvest of approximately six beans at a time. They were huge beans – beautiful and delicious – but divvying them up at mealtime was a pitiful sight.

That first year, we also quickly became familiar with a variety of species of aphids. Red ones, black ones, white wooly ones. You name it, we had it feasting in our garden. Lady bugs would have helped if we had gotten them sooner. Soap water in a spray bottle slowed them down, but didn't get rid of them altogether. In the end, we lost the battle, and our sugar snap peas.

The lettuce never had a chance. Our deck lends cover to a nice family of wild rabbits. (Time to patch that hole in the fence.) We also discovered that typical red Carolina clay is not conducive for growing root vegetables. Our carrots and potatoes were a complete failure as well. Lessons learned.

Last year, we got excited about the height of our broccoli plants. They were getting to be three feet tall and looked healthy – no aphids in sight. But, they never crowned. No edible little trees ever made it to the dinner table.

Of course, the fact that our second son was born in the middle of planting season didn't help come harvest time last year. There was very little to brag about (as far as veggies go at least). So, this year, we were better prepared.

Our calendar is covered with dates for approximate planting and harvest times for all of our favorites: broccoli, bush and pole beans, eggplant, sweet peppers, cucumbers, squash and we're trying carrots again – this time in a large container garden on the deck – since they seem to be one of the only vegetables to have ever passed the lips of our four-year-old.

You'll notice one of the most popular additions to the typical backyard garden is conspicuously missing from the list. No one in our family is a lover of tomatoes – whether fresh or in sauce – so they didn't make the cut. But, we rounded out our veggie selection with a complete herb garden and an attempt at some berries, which we planted last year. And Zachary is in charge of caring for a small plot of sunflowers this year.

I hope to have a growing season worth sharing, so look for future posts on the progress of our garden. And if this year's harvest is a success, I'll have some footing for my plan to expand next season. 

What are you growing in your backyard garden?




Friday, April 29, 2011

Eating Local

By choosing locally grown foods, we are benefitting local farmers, our local economy, the environment, our health and our tastebuds. Sounds like an easy choice to me. So, where do we start?

Farmer's Markets

Seems like every town in our area has it's own weekly seasonal Farmer's Market, in addition to the State Farmer's Market in Raleigh which is open daily year round. There certainly are plenty of options.

Farmer's Markets are a convenient way to find local produce, locally raised meat and eggs, and other handmade goods with one-stop shopping. And since every dollar spent at a Farmer's Market goes directly to the farmer, rather than a middleman, you are supporting the local economy and getting fresh, quality food, too.

Seasonal Farmer's Markets should be opening within the next week or so in this area – usually operating May through October. Check the Local Harvest website here to find a market near you. 

CSAs

CSAs (community supported agriculture) allow members to have a more direct relationship with local farmers and their food. In a traditional CSA, members purchase “shares” of a farm, receiving a portion of the harvest in return. Typically, payments for a whole season of produce are made in full prior to the Spring planting.

I belonged to a CSA while living in San Diego. The quality of the produce was excellent, as was the camaraderie among members, but there were a couple of drawbacks. On more than one occasion, I was unable to get to the pick-up location at the appointed time to get my box of produce. And since the harvest is usually equally portioned, there isn't any choice in what produce you will receive.

You can find local CSAs listed on the Local Harvest website as well. And on the State Farmer's Market website, you will find a chart showing when your favorite fruits and vegetables are in season in North Carolina. 

Third-Party CSAs

While doing some research into CSAs here in the Raleigh area, I came across a number of CSAs run by third-party organizations or groups of local farms. This type of set-up offers CSA members the added benefits of more variety, choice in assembling your weekly box of produce, and even delivery to your doorstep in some cases. Convenience is important to me, so we decided to go with a third-party CSA, Papa Spuds, which offers milk, cheese, eggs, meat and seafood in addition to local organic and conventionally-grown produce.

However, you do have to be careful when choosing a third-party CSA. Do some research ahead of time into what the offerings are, what farms they work with and reviews of quality from current members. I also came across some warnings online about concerns with how some organizations treated the farmers they work, and when you are joining a CSA as a way to support local farmers, this is an important factor.

U-Pick

Probably considered more of an attraction than a shopping destination, U-Pick farms allow the public to come into the fields and fill their own buckets of fruit or produce. Pick-your-own berries are the especially popular, and the strawberries are already ripening in this area. I can tell you from experience that they are much sweeter than anything currently in the supermarket.

Look for farms that allow you to pick your own fruits and vegetables on the Pick Your Own website here.

Grow Your Own

You can't get any more local than right in your own backyard. Here you have full control – over what to plant and how much, how to fertilize, and how to treat for pests. If you are considering planting your own vegetables for the first time, first check online to see what types and varieties of veggies grow well in your area.  I referenced NC State University's Vegetable Garden Planting Guide often.

You can also get advice from the employees of your local garden store or nursery and there are plenty of seed catalogs to peruse for ideas. The time for planting is now, so start planning right away. (More about my family's attempts at square foot gardening coming soon.)

Want to know more about Square Foot Gardening? Check out the website here. Need some tips on what to grow in your backyard and how? See this web site on backyard vegetable gardening

Any one of these options, or a combination of them, will get you started in the local eating movement. But, if you want to challenge yourself further, take a look at the Eat Local Challenge here. Originating in Portland, Oregon in 2005, the challenge has been modified for year round use by EcoTrusts Food & Farms Program, and an official scorecard can be downloaded to get you started. The goal is to spend 10% of your grocery budget on local foods, to try one new fruit or veggie every day, and to preserve some fruits or veggies for later use. Try it. I think you'll be surprised by what you discover. Good luck!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Greening Our Eating

Step one of our greening project is to take a closer look at something very personal - my family's eating habits - and to explore how the choices we make affect others and the planet.

It's no surprise that the typical American diet is bad for your health, but bad for the environment? I never stopped to think about how my food decisions may impact the world around me. Besides wasting less food, and starting to eat those leftovers in the fridge before they turn into a whole other kind of science project, what changes could my family make in order to green our eating? I identified six areas that will take priority when making food decisions for our family.

1. Eat Local
Did you know that the average food product travels 1500 miles to get to our plates? Starting with my morning coffee, bananas for the baby, juice boxes for the big boy and Dad's sushi addiction, most of what we consume daily could not be considered local. But choosing locally grown foods eliminates the need for long-distance shipping. This ensures that food gets to your plate faster, making it fresher and better tasting. Cutting down on the number of miles food products travel also cuts down on emissions and fuel consumption, the amount of packaging necessary, and whatever chemical additives might be needed to guarantee a longer shelf life. Knowing exactly where your food comes from also gives you peace of mind if there is a food recall. You'll know immediately whether or not you should be concerned.

2. Eat Organic
There is still much debate over what level of risk might be imposed by the use of pesticides in conventional farming methods, but whether or not the chemical residue negatively affects humans (and I'd rather err on the safe side), it does have a significant environmental impact - on nearby water supplies, on soil quality and on biodiversity. Choosing organic foods certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and bearing a label that says "USDA Certified Organic" is the best way to make sure the food you are eating has been produced under strict organic guidelines. However, eating locally offers the benefit of knowing the people who are producing your food and being able to ask questions. Some local farmers in our area are not applying for organic certification because of the burden of record keeping and the additional paperwork necessary, but are still practicing organic farming methods. Others will let you know their produce is pesticide free, although not technically organic.

3. Eat in Bulk
No, this doesn't mean we're shopping at the warehouse clubs. But, we are purchasing more foods from bulk food bins, like those in food markets like Whole Foods, in order to avoid unnecessary packaging and create less garbage. Our four-year-old was the first to feel the pinch of this modification when we stopped buying juice boxes. (We're also working on eliminating all individually wrapped snacks.) Just remember to bring your own reusable bags with you when you hit the bulk bins to avoid filling your kitchen with more non-recyclable plastic bags. And if you can't find a store with bulk bins near you, buying staples such as rice in large bags reduces wasted packaging - just make sure you will eat it all.

4. Eat Sustainably
This is particularly important when choosing fish. The Seafood Watch program of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium publishes a pocket guide of recommendations so consumers can choose to eat fish that are caught using responsible fishing methods that do not lead to overfishing, bycatch (catching unwanted species with broad fishing practices), or ocean habitat destruction. And for those of you with iPhones and Androids, there is also an app to help you make the best seafood choices in restaurants and sushi bars. Read more about Seafood Watch here.

5. Eat Humanely
While we are lessening our consumption of animal products, when we do choose meats, we look for labels that indicate humane practices such as free-range, grass-fed and hormone-free. These methods are not only healthier for our consumption but the conditions are better for the animals and the environment. This is something we'll be researching further in the weeks to come.

6. Eat Compassionately
When food items cannot be purchased locally, as is the case for my beloved coffee, we will be making the commitment to buy fair trade. Even though this is more of a social movement than an environmental one, buying products with the Fair Trade label promotes sustainable practices among producers in developing countries.

My family is currently practicing these six points in varying degrees, but as we move forward and delve further into the research pertaining to each category, I will post our findings, our successes and our failures. Read more about our local eating pledge and our experiences with CSA's on Friday.