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.