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?