Thursday, February 26, 2009

Some Things That Make It Easier

Here is a list of a few of the things that I found necessary in my efforts to feed my family more responsibly. You don’t need any of them to get started, but if you’re a list maker, you might like to see the list, if not, skip it. You can certainly get started with what you have and add these (or not) later.

While it’s not absolutely necessary, a large stand alone freezer will save you lots of money and time in the end. If you are committed to eating more locally, it’s becomes more necessary, or your options become very limited. There are lots of items that can be purchased in bulk, but without some way of storing them, they will go to waste. Most fruits and vegetables are only in season one time a year in any given place and being able to store them to eat all year long truly expands your menu.

Don’t feel you must go out and buy a brand new freezer. Although the newer versions most likely are better energy-wise, there are lots of cheap and even free freezers out there. We got our commercial freezer at no cost (other than hauling it and removing the stink that had accumulated after a year of no use) from a friend who was downsizing. People discard freezers for lots of reasons and unless you’ve ever tried to get rid of one, you can’t appreciate how difficult it is. You can’t put your unwanted freezer out for the trash and hauling one to the dump is a sizable task. Ask around – you may be surprised to find one right under your nose.

Other good places to find freezers are and You might have a local community paper that places ads for free – check them or add your own.

Canning Supplies
If you don’t have a freezer (and even if you do), canning is another great way to store local produce long term. I’ve eaten things from jars that were lost for over a year during a move and discovered the food inside still delicious. I know everyone thinks of canning as something your grandmother used to do, but lots of people still can today. Many hardware stores (especially the smaller mom and pop type), Walmart, and even the grocery stores sell canning supplies. You don’t necessarily need a canner, but it does make it easier and they aren’t expensive. I don’t use a pressure canner, but if you want to can meat or broth, you’ll need one. I use a regular bath canner. It’s just a big flat bottom pot with a lid and a metal ring inside that keeps the jars upright and away from each other. I’ll write lots about canning when the canning season begins! (although you can can all year round – I canned cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving)

Jars can be used again and again, so be sure to save the box they come in to store your empties as you use them. Lids and lid rings are also necessary. I re-use lid rings, but not the lids. Different people feel differently about that. Lots of people re-use them, but I don’t. I worry that they won’t seal properly the second time around. I like my canned goods too much to take that chance. The other two tools that help a lot in canning are a lifter and a jar funnel. The lifter is like special made rubber tongs for taking hot jars out and the metal (also found in plastic – but I’m opposed to putting hot food through a plastic funner) funnel is very helpful when filling your jars. You can operate without these tools, but they do make it easier.

Glass storage containers

The verdict is still out on plastic storage containers, but there is enough controversy surrounding them that I stick to glass. It’s been around forever and so far, no bad press. I think glass keeps food fresher and I know it looks better. Plus, they can be thrown in the dishwasher without breaking down or discoloring. Glass storage containers last longer too. They come in all sizes and shapes. The ones I like I got at Target and have a metal lid that screws on. I made neat little labels for their tops and get a strange thrill when I see them all lined up in my drawer. It makes me feel very Martha Stewartish. I store flours (I never knew there were so many kinds!), dried fruit, sugars, nuts, baking powder, corn meal, salt, spices, pasta, and pretty much anything I buy in bulk in glass containers.

Plastic freezer bags
If you are using a freezer, you’ll need lots of these, plus a sharpie marker to label everything. It’s critical that you put dates on everything you freeze. You think you’ll remember what they are and when you froze them – but you won’t. And believe me strawberry sauce and spaghetti sauce look awful alike after they’ve been frozen a few months (so does applesauce and chicken broth). That wasn’t a pleasant lesson to learn the hard way – so take it from me.

Whatever you put in your bags – here’s a few more hints that will help:
Be sure the fruit/vegetable is as air dry as it can be. You can use a salad spinner to help with this.
Always remove all the extra air. This will do a lot for fighting freezer burn.
Freeze flat. After you have filled your bag, push the ingredients around until they are as flat as can be and freeze the bag in this position. Then after it is completely frozen, you can stack your bags up like bricks in the freezer and they take up less room (and look incredibly organized).

Plastic containers (large yogurt containers, small ones, old medicine bottles)
Ok, I’m admitting right up front that I have a container fetish. Ask my husband or check out my basement. Even though you can now recycle almost anything, I still hang on to all useful containers. This has come in very handy for me, not only saving us money, but making my life simpler. Small medicine bottles are great for storing the wealth of dried herbs we grow and large yogurt containers are perfect for freezing applesauce and chicken broth after they have cooled. Having various containers on hand has been a lifesaver when packing for a picnic, taking food to a friend in need, or sending food to school or church for an event. Small yogurt containers also make the perfect pot for starting seeds inside.

Find a place and a way to store plastic containers and you will be helping yourself and the planet. I wish I had a handy tip for storing miscellaneous plastic containers. I put like-size containers together in boxes and bins and shelve them and use the drawers of an old desk for the little containers, but there’s not an easy answer.

I’ve already extolled the wonders of the breadmaker, but like freezers these are also something that people discard. Check yardsales and goodwill and the basements of relatives and friends. I got mine for $15 at goodwill – brand new still with the directions! This appliance will save you lots of money!

Yogurt maker

These are less expensive than a good toaster oven and are just about the easiest appliance to use in my whole kitchen. You can also make yogurt using your own oven – but I’m fairly sure the money you save will be spent leaving your oven on for 12 hours.

Sorry about the long post. But if you’re still reading this, you must have needed all this information!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Aspartame vs. Stevia

When I first began eating organic myself, I couldn’t truly couldn’t fathom giving up my Equal (aspartame) to sweeten my tea, soft drinks, yogurt, and every other diet version of foods I love. I had no idea what was in Equal, but I needed it. Without an artificial sweetener I would surely turn in to an enlarged, grumpy version of myself. Then I discovered stevia.

Stevia is an herb native to Paraguay. It is an all natural sweetener that is 300 times sweeter than sugar. And get this – no calories! True. It even looks just like aspartame – coming in a white powder form. It was and still is, crucial to my diet. I use it to sweeten tea and yogurt, but have yet to bake with it. I can’t figure out how the smaller volume of sweetener will work out in my cookies. I promise to try and let you know. I cruised recently and discovered all kinds of recipes I hope to try.

I did a little research this week in to aspartame and stevia. Here’s what I discovered. Aspartame is made in a lab by combining two amino acids. Stevia is a plant leaf (commonly called “sweet leaf”). Aspartame has been around since the 70’s and been heavily marketed. Do a search of aspartame online and you will quickly find site after site warning about the effects of aspartame poisoning and other dangers. Stevia has been used for centuries by the Paraguay Indians with no ill effects. Stevia is safe for use in diabetics because it does not raise blood sugar levels.

Stevia was first brought to this country in 1991 but under great pressure, the FDA only approved its sale if it was labeled a “supplement” rather than a “sweetener”. Reading between the lines on several reports it was clear that the Paraguay Indians just didn’t have a very good lobbyist. Somehow it has finally been cleared for take off (this past fall) and the marketing mavens have already begun their descent. You can find stevia marketed now as “truvia”. Truvia is not necessarily pure stevia, so personally, I’d stick with the real deal. Coke has plans to market a new diet sprite with stevia (Sprite Green, I think) and Pepsi will introduce three SoBe drinks with Stevia.

You can find stevia in the organics section of your grocery store and certainly in any health food store. You can buy it in a shake dispenser or in small packets (just like equal). It is also available in a liquid form. It costs about the same as any artificial sweetener. Now that the FDA finally cleared Stevia to be labeled a sweetener, you'll probably start seeing it everywhere. Like everything else, though, be careful about buying complicated products. Be smart and think organic - stick with the real deal.

Have a sweet day!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Growing Your Own: Seed starting

Let me say a word about seeds. You can pay the extra money and buy certified organic seeds and they will be great seeds. I know. I’ve used them. You can pay a little more than regular and a little less than organic prices and buy heirloom seeds and you will grow vegetables like you’ve never tasted before. Heirloom seeds are organic by nature. I know some purists will take issue with this, but by organic, I mean they haven’t been chemically altered or genetically messed with. They’ve just been proven winners for years and years. They’ve been passed down for generations, most older than you and me. And there’s a reason they have survived.

First of all, if they weren’t pretty hardy, they would have died out years ago. Second, if they didn’t produce great tasting vegetables, no one would have bothered passing them along. So I recommend buying heirloom seeds whenever possible. I’m blessed because I live in the same town as the oldest heirloom seedhouse in America – Landreth Seeds ( But you can buy heirloom seeds in most garden stores and certainly, by mail order. You can also save your own seeds each year and trade with your friends. Saving and trading seeds is a bit of a cult, you may discover. I save mine each year and store the seeds in plastic medicine bottles stored in my basement. Saving seeds is easy. Collect them, rinse them, and dry them thoroughly. I put mine in paper lunch bags and hang them in my basement near the de-humidifier for several weeks. Store them in a dark, airtight, dry place. Nothing easier – you may never buy seeds again!

Just don’t save hybrid seeds, you never know what you’ll get. Hybrids come from two different parents, so the next batch could be one or the other or a bad combination of both. There are also some seeds that can’t be saved because some seed companies engineer their seeds so that their offspring seeds will not grow. That way you have to keep buying more of their seeds. Stick with heirlooms, you won’t regret it.

You’ll need to start some seeds inside according to the area you live in. I start mine in late February so that I can set them out in early April. This week I’m starting all kinds of annual and perennial flowers, onions, and lettuce. I’ll start my tomatoes and peppers and hot weather plants in mid March so they are ready to go by Mother’s Day. Look for seed starter that is organic or at the very least, doesn’t have chemical fertilizer (miracle gro and such) added to the medium. I use mostly organic milled spagnum moss because it’s cheaper than organic soil and easier to handle. If you haven’t saved your small yogurt containers (or asked a friendly neighbor with small children to save them for you), you can buy seed flats or make your own biodegradable newspaper pots (requires a special talent or the use of a wooden tool sold in garden catalogs). If you’re using small yogurt containers, you’ll need to put holes in the bottom of the container to allow for drainage and so you can water from the bottom. I use a tiny drill bit and a cordless drill and make quick work of it.

Grow lights can be set up anywhere. An easy way is to utilize a bookshelf you already have. Clear off the books and suspend grow lights from the underside of each shelf. You’ll want to use a spray bottle that has mist setting (you can recycle any spray bottle as long as it is thoroughly cleaned out) and be gentle when watering your seedlings. Investing in a timer for your grow lights is also a wise move unless you’re more reliable than I am about turning the lights on and off at the correct time each day. Popsicle sticks make fine labels so that you don’t forget what you planted. Your seed packet will tell you how deep to plant each seed and expected germination rate (when you'll actually see something green appear).

When deciding what to plant be sure you plant what you’ll use, not just what looks good. Another rule of thumb I use is if I can find it cheaper and yummier locally, I don’t grow it myself. I always plant broccoli because I love the way it looks in the garden. But it is a space hog for not a very large yield and truth be told – my broccoli isn’t any better than the local broccoli I can buy at my farm stand. So I have vowed not to plant broccoli this year – we shall see!

I can’t do without lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, onions, garlic, peppers, and herbs. If I have space I add corn, watermelon, pumpkin, potatoes, carrots, peas, radishes, zucchini, and just for fun – decorative gourds. You plant what works for you. The planning is the best part – I love dreaming up my summer garden in the dead of winter.

Monday, February 23, 2009

It's that time again!

This weekend we clipped the chickens’ wings. And as much as I am fundamentally opposed to clipping anyone’s wings, it was necessary because it is time to start the gardens! (If you’ve never kept chickens, you may not realize that 16 chickens can destroy, uproot, and scatter a good size garden in a matter of minutes. They are ruthless in their search for edible bugs) Now that their wings are clipped we can close the gate and they won’t fly over the fence of their pen. So many common phrases have come to life for us as we care for our chickens. They don’t like being “penned up” any more than the rest of us, but they’ll adjust. Just so long as they don’t fly the coop. The great thing about chickens is that they are incredibly forgetful (this seems like a kinder word than stupid) and in only a few days they’ll forget that they used to roam free on our range.

Anyone attempting an organic life needs a garden, even if it’s just a pot on your porch. If you own a home or have access to some open space – cultivate a garden. Nothing will save you more money or make you happier (except maybe free maid service). If your home is limited – be creative. You can build a raised bed on your deck or attach window boxes to the railing. There are lots of wonderful books on growing vertically. You’d be surprised what you can grow with very little space. Potatoes will grow in a garbage can and tomatoes can grow in hanging pots. Herbs will grow in a sunny window.

Do you have any friends who have the space but haven’t put in a garden? Maybe they are intimidated and worried about having the time to care for it. Together you could grow some wonderful stuff. You won’t just share the work – you’ll share the rewards!

If there is absolutely no way you can have a garden at home, or even if you do, consider joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). You’ll meet lots of great people who will share their wisdom with you and you’ll get a larger variety of plants than you could ever grow on your own. Some CSAs operate year round and have dairy and meats, in addition to vegetables and fruit. Check out to find a CSA near you.

If you have a suitable space of lawn that you would like to make in to a garden, there’s a fairly easy way to do it. “Lasagna gardening” is a bit of an art form, but you need only to know the basics to end up with a lush garden next season. First you lay out your garden by placing thick layers of newspapers (no glossies and try to avoid too much color) in the shape you have planned. Water the newspaper until it is thoroughly drenched. Now you begin your layers using whatever you have available trying to alternate between “green” (compost, manure, organic liquid fertilizer) and “brown” (dried leaves, peat moss, ashes, grass clippings). You can put on as many layers as you like, adding in more newspaper layers. We have gotten lazier and lazier with this each year. Now we mostly use newspaper, horse manure, dried leaves, and wood ash. No matter how much effort we put in, the garden always ends up being a pretty great producer. Like I said, there are books about this if you’re interested (great primer called simply Lasagna Gardening). The high-tech gardeners amongst you may want to test your soil and add what you need to perfect your ph. I’m a pretty low maintenance gardener and I just trust the earth to do its thing each year.

It’s not too late to establish a lasagna garden for this year. You’ll just have to make your top layer mostly soil. Around here where rocks grow abundantly, it is easier to garden in a raised bed. If that all seems too intimidating, you can always purchase window boxes or pots. You can also build your own boxes with untreated lumber. The bottom of your box should be a sturdy screen to allow for drainage.

So look around you – where could you add a garden? The possibilities are endless – be creative! It’s hard to believe that in just a month things will be green and growing. But they will – it’s time to get ready. Tomorrow I’ll post about seeds and starting your garden inside.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A cheese curl is not just a cheese curl...

There are lots of scientific studies and tragic case histories that document the benefits of eating organically. I’m horrible at remembering the numbers and the details. I can’t even pronounce, let alone recall, the names of specific ingredients found in processed foods or the chemicals found in pesticides and preservatives that are killing us. All I know is that eating organically makes sense and I feel better and my kids are healthier for it. Many diseases and disorders are on the rise and much of the time we throw up our hands and feel pretty helpless. There are lots of factors at play here – how could we possibly figure it all out? We can’t. But we are not helpless and there are some things that we can change. What we eat and what we feed our kids is a biggie.

Most of us don’t think too much about what happens to our food once it gets past the taste buds. We don’t consider that our bodies are machines that require certain nutrients. They don’t need a lot of what we put in them. Just because something tastes good, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. We all know that – our mothers told us that when we were three and wanted to live on candy. We feed our body lots of things it doesn’t need and was never meant to process.

I’ve been around horses most of my life. Colic is the biggest killer of horses. Colic is really just a symptom – intestinal pain. The reason you can have intestinal pain and feel better in 24 hours yet it kills horses is simple. Horses’ systems only work in one direction. Horses can’t throw up. So if they eat something their body can’t process, it will kill them. Happens all the time.

Eating things that our bodies are not meant to process can’t possibly be good for us. And most likely it is hurting us. If you put the wrong gas or oil in a machine and try to run it, it may run, but not well. Do this long enough and the entire engine might seize up. When we make our body process things we are not meant to process it weakens our health and it can cause systems to break down.

That said, just because something is organic doesn’t mean it is good for us either. My kids were really excited to discover that there is such a thing as an organic cheese curl and an organic chocolate chip cookie. There’s even organic soda. If I must, I will buy these things to pacify my children and keep them on board with our organic life, but I try not to. I know that the food they need is whole and honest and recognizable. Be careful as you head down this organic path that you don’t assume that the green and white symbol is a green light. A general rule of thumb for me is to stick with unprocessed food and do the processing myself. That way if they're eating chocolate chip cookies at least I know what went in to them (including the extra ½ cups of ground flax seed and almond meal!).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A word about kids and organic living

Most kids hear the words organic and think – something that tastes weird and is supposed to be good for me. At least that’s the assumption my kids were working with when this all first began. They said the word “organic” with the same inflection they might use for the words “brussel sprouts”. They always assumed the worst and were constantly suspicious of every food I put in front of them. “Is this organic?” would be the first thing out of their mouths, even if the dinner in question was one of their favorites. It took awhile.

I’m not going to tell you that it was easy and now my kids are true believers. It took a long time. There were plenty of moments when I’d throw up my hands in exasperation when I served them something that cost a fortune and tasted fabulous, yet they would refuse to even try it.

The two big things you need when trying to convert your children to the organic life are persistence and compromise. You have to keep putting things out there. At the same time I did recognize that there were a few non-negotiables for them. They weren’t willing to give up their pancake syrup (never mind how much better maple syrup tastes – that’s not the point!) or their cheez-its. So we compromised. I buy that nasty, preservative laden, imitation flavored, artificially colored syrup on special occasions and birthdays. They can have one box of cheez-its each week. We’ve had this policy in place for nearly two years now, and while they have held fast on the syrup, they have slowly lost their devotion to cheez-its. My husband sees this as a good thing since maple syrup costs a mint and my children tend to bathe in their pancake syrup.

I doubt that any of my children even remember what ultra-pasteurized milk in a plastic jug tastes like anymore. Same for Peter Pan peanut butter (formerly their favorite). Slowly, by consistently offering them healthy alternatives, they have changed. They even seem a little proud that we eat organically.

I think it comes down to what a lot of things come down to in parenting – holding your ground. You have to draw your line and then stick to it. This is the way we eat now. Forever. It won’t change when Mommy loses interest, because it’s a change for the better. Mommy won’t lose interest; she just might get less preachy about it (promise!).

The bottom line is that organic, local, healthy food tastes better. It truly does. Your kids will figure this out too, as long as their attitudes don’t get in the way. Sometimes it takes awhile, but they’ll come around. And they won’t starve meanwhile – honest.

One more thing – and this is important. Even though you know that eating organically is better for your kids, you cannot push this on other parents. When my kids go to other houses, I never question what they will eat. They can and should eat whatever is served. I’ve had parents apologize for feeding my kids pop-tarts or Doritos, but I always assure them there’s no need. It’s important to teach your kids that manners matter, and everyone makes their own decisions about how and what they eat – and we respect that. No judgment. My kids happily scarf down all kinds of treats at birthday parties, playdates, and school events. And that is fine. I know that the majority of what they eat is healthy and they are young, their bodies can handle a little bad stuff now and then. Funny thing is, they are finding out that when they eat a bunch of store bought birthday cake or too many chips, they don’t feel so good. Hmm, maybe they don’t need me to make the connection for them. They’re smart kids.

You Don't have to buy the cow

In my opinion, organic milk is a must. It’s a basic and whether your kids drink it by the gallon or you only cook with it, find a healthy version.

That said, this is a toughie to do yourself. Not that we didn’t consider a dairy cow (for about 10 seconds). Milk has been made in to a bad guy with all the press about added hormones and antibiotics, so there are lots of companies now making organic versions. I have high hopes that as the competition increases, the price will come down. In the beginning I bought our organic milk at the grocery store, but I was troubled by the ultra pasteurization. It didn’t seem right that milk would keep for 3 months. That just couldn’t be healthy. After reading more about how ultra pasteurization kills not only bad bacteria, but all the good bacteria and enzymes, I began a quest to find an alternative.

Raw milk was very controversial, but since it is monitored and sold in my state, I decided we should try it. I’m not a big milk drinker. I love my yogurt, cheese, and ice cream, but plain old milk is not my thing. A couple of my kids are milk drinkers though and they were alarmed when I brought home raw milk. They liked the glass containers (claiming it keeps the milk colder), but they just couldn’t get past having to shake their milk before they drank it. We tried to make a go of it, even straining out the chunks, but it just didn’t work out. They became more and more resistant and at double the price of regular milk, I wasn’t ready to die on that hill.

I continued my search and soon found an Amish stand that sold milk made locally from grass fed cows. These cows are given no growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. They don’t have the green and white circle, but they are as close as you can come. The milk is sold in bottles that I rinse and return each week and it is a few cents cheaper than the organic milk at the grocery store. I had my answer! Everyone in my family agrees it tastes better and I’m at peace with the idea of local, happy pastured cows producing milk for us. I’m supporting my neighbors and offering my family a healthy food. I’m still paying more than regular milk, but less than organic. It works for us.

Each week I head to the Amish market with my empties and get my fresh milk. I’ve read that there are milk delivery services starting up in some cities. If we lived in a major metropolitan area, I’d search online. When I was a kid we got our milk delivered in a metal box that sat on our front porch. Funny, how progress sometimes leads us right back to where we started.

You don't have to be a hippie to make your own yogurt

Yogurt is a favorite at our house, so it made my list of frequent purchases. It also made my list of extremely expensive organic food. I loved the yogurt we were buying It was made only a few miles away and was creamy and delicious. But it was crazy expensive. There had to be another way. I remember my own mother making yogurt when I was a child. It was sour and covered with a layer of clear liquid that I was sure would kill you. I hated it on principle. But yogurt makers have come a long way. They are relatively inexpensive (about $35) and very simple to use.

I got my yogurt maker online. It makes 7 six ounce jars of yogurt at a time. This is perfect for us because it is kid size and it keeps me from over doing it with my portions. All you need to start making yogurt is some good organic milk that is not ultra-pasteurized and a small container of plain yogurt. I was surprised to discover how simple it is to make. The first step is to bring the appropriate amount of milk to room temperature. Next you separate out a cup or two of it and mix that with 6 oz of plain yogurt. Then you blend in any fruit or sweeteners you would like to use and put the whole mess back together. The only thing left to do is fill you jars and turn on the yogurt maker. Easy, huh? Takes about five minutes.

After you’ve made your first batch you can use your own yogurt as your starter culture, but you can’t do that with the next generation. I’m not sure why, but my yogurt maker directions were adamant about it and I haven’t challenged them. I simply buy a small container of plain yogurt for every other batch. There are yogurt cultures for sale at health food stores and online. You can buy them if it makes you happy, but you certainly don’t need them.

Maple syrup and agave necter both work very well as sweeteners. Any sweetener that will dissolve in liquid will work. My favorite flavor (and one the kids like too) uses maple syrup and vanilla extract. We’ve also had success adding maple syrup and applesauce. I make a less fattening yogurt by using nonfat milk and sweetening with stevia. The possibilities are endless and the yogurt is divine. Easily as good as the yogurt I was paying $5.95/quart for! I haven’t done the math, but I’d wager I’m saving at least half of that by making my own.

It takes 8-12 hours for the yogurt to be ready and then it needs to cool, so you do need to plan ahead. I purchased an extra set of jars for my yogurt maker so that I always have plenty of yogurt ready to go. We tend to eat it as fast as I make it, but I can attest to the yogurt keeping for 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

If you’re making yogurt too, I’d love to hear your recipes! I’m not sure how frozen yogurt works. I’m going to study the directions for my ice cream maker and find out how to make the frozen version. If I meet with some success, I’ll let you know.

Bread for the Body and Soul

Bread was the top of my list of most frequently purchased and frequently eaten by kids so it was a logical first step for our family. In the beginning we purchased organic bread. It was pricey. I did manage to figure out which brands froze well and bought large quantities when they were on sale. Bread takes up a lot of room in your freezer and as we discovered other things that needed space in the freezer, I looked for another way. I discovered it at Goodwill. Goodwill is one of my favorite places to shop for lots of reasons – price, variety, price, quality, and price. It also fits in neatly with my desire to recycle and lessen the burden on the landfills in our area. Anyway, at Goodwill I found a brand new breadmaker including the instructions for just $15! What a steal. I went right home and got baking.

It took a little while but I discovered recipes for making whole wheat for sandwiches and a passable French bread for dinners. Baking bread with a breakmaker is ridiculously simple. It takes about five minutes (or less). The only trick is dumping the ingredients in to the pan in the correct order. Basically, all the wet ingredients, followed by all the dry ingredients finishing with flour and yeast at the very end. Then you simply press a button and wait. My house always smells wonderful now because bread is always baking! One loaf costs me about ¼ of what it costs to buy a loaf at the store. And better yet – it tastes better! Here we go again, saving money and eating yummier! I just discovered some bread bags that are supposed to help your bread stay fresh longer. I’ll let you know in a later post if they work.

You can find your own breadmaker at resale shops or garage sales. They are not hard to find. Lots of people got them with good intentions or as Christmas or wedding presents and used them once or twice before disparaging of the space they take up on the counter or the weight they gained eating fresh bread all the time. They are out there – start looking! You can always buy your own, but you’ll feel more justified finding one used or free! Be sure to ask your relatives, someone’s bound to have one they’d love to unload. A word about the calories – it is tempting in the beginning to have a fresh slice with lots of butter every time it’s baked, but after awhile you’ll figure out how to make a lighter bread and once you’re baking everyday, you won’t feel quite as tempted to indulge every time.

When I’m making bread for my kids’ sandwiches or toast, I try to make the bread as packed with healthy ingredients as possible. I always add in flax meal. Flax is a powerhouse of omega 3’s and fiber and makes your bread moister. I also substitute milk for the water to add in more nutrients and use whole grain flours only. If your kids don’t think that adding nuts is the worst thing you can do to a food (particularly cookies) you can add sunflower seeds or any kind of crushed nut. I do sneak in almond meal on occasion, but their nut radar is too sharp for me so far. There are so many different types of flour these days that your options are only limited by your imagination.

Baking your own bread will save you money. Big money. But it will also be good for your spirit. Creating something that is healthy and delicious and so simple makes will not just nourish your body, but your spirit. This is an easy change – try it.

One last note – it’s helpful to purchase a good bread cutting board (has a box underneath it to catch crumbs). I found mine at Goodwill (of course), but I’ve also seen them in kitchen stores. A good serrated knife will also make your bread slicing more satisfying. I’ve been looking for a bread slicing knife that also portions the bread (has a metal measure attached to the blade). I’ve seen them before but can’t find one now that I’m actually looking for one. If you know where to find one – please let me know!

I’m going to try to add a recipe section to this blog. When I do, I’ll post my recipes for half-wheat bread that is kid-friendly and great for sandwiches.

Where to Start

Living and eating organically seems like it is a big step – a complete change in the way you do things. In reality, it’s not. It is continuing to do much of what you do now, but you approach it differently. The questions you ask aren’t simply “Do I like it?” and “Which one is cheapest?” You need to ask “Where’d it come from?” “What’s it made of?” It’s a matter of priorities. You have to take the time to read labels, ask questions, and shop in new places. The first thing many people say is “I haven’t got time.” Believe me, I hear ya. But here’s the thing – none of us has the time. We make the time. If it is important you will take the time. I tell this to my husband when he says he has no time to workout, yet hits the snooze button at least 3 times each morning – that’s 27 minutes! If someone in your family had a life-threatening condition and it required you to eat organic, you know you’d find the time. Well, the way many of us are eating these days is a life-threatening condition. So, no, I don’t accept the excuse “I haven’t got the time.” You don’t have to change everything today, you make little changes and gradually you’ll find you’re doing things a whole new way. It took me at least a year to really feel like we were really doing the organic thing. As my dear friend Lisa says whenever I’m overwhelmed – “baby steps”.

The first step is always the most intimidating. After that it’s easy. I would encourage you to do what works for you and not judge yourself. Any improvement you can make in the quality of the food you eat and the life you lead is better than none.

Whenever I’m starting a new project I always like to make lists. Seeing it in writing makes me feel like I know what I’m doing and I have some control (even if the opposite is true). First, evaluate what your family eats. Make a list of what you buy most often and what your kids eat most often.

This list is the place to start. If it is a long list, pick a one or two items (or more if you’re feeling ambitious) to start with. It makes sense that if your family, particularly your kids, eat a lot of something, finding an organic option for that food will have the most impact in their diet. We went organic for the kids long before we started eating organically ourselves.

For my kids the biggies were bread, yogurt, fruit, carrots, milk, peanut butter, cheese, and juice. I tackled each in its own way. In the beginning I just went to the market and paid the big price for these items and our grocery bill shot way up. That wasn’t going to work, so slowly I found less expensive options. In the next few posts, I’ll tell you how we tackled our biggies to give you some ideas. My best advice is don’t assume it can’t be done, because it can. You just might have to look outside your box.

Where to find food

If you’re already living the organic life, this information may be old news. If you’re new to it, I hope it’s helpful. Either way, I’d welcome your comments and ideas about other ways to find organic food.

Start with your local grocery stores. Most stores carry organic brands now and some even have organic aisles. You’ll soon discover who has a better selection and decent pricing. I mentioned before that you’ll pay dearly for the little certified organic symbol. So the best way to handle grocery shopping is the same way people have always saved money on their grocery bill – watch for sales, cut coupons, buy in bulk.

If an item you use frequently goes on sale – buy all you can. Most food can be stored. Cans and boxed goods usually have an expiration date – check the date and if the sale is really good – buy all you can. Not only does it save you money now, it will save you money later when you don’t have to go back to the grocery store for more.

I’ve discovered that you can freeze all sorts of things – nuts, cheese, bread, tortillas, butter – and they keep just fine. I keep flax meal, almond meal, and wheat germ in my freezer because they stay fresher, longer. You’ll soon discover how handy it is to have extra on hand and you’ll save money buying items on sale and storing them. If your favorite organic fruit or veggie goes on sale, buy it in bulk and can or freeze it.

As manufacturers are discovering the demand for organic items, more and more options are becoming available. And with that comes competition and with competition come – coupons! I find coupons for organic items in the newspaper, the store circular and in the organic aisle. There’s even a free coupon circular devoted to organic products available in many grocery stores.

If you are searching for an organic version or a particular organic brand, don’t hesitate to ask a store manager. Most managers will be happy to order products they know will have a guaranteed customer. Also, the more often organic choices are requested, the more likely it is that your store will continue to expand its organic offerings.

The other place most people start when they begin their quest to “go organic” is the health food store. I am blessed with a health food store near me that is, in my opinion, one of the best in the nation. That may not be the case for everyone. So a word of caution when approaching health food stores – many times the products you find there are expensive and if the store is not thriving, the turnover of products might not be great – check expiration dates! I’ve been burned too many times at stores like these. And although there are some wonderful stores out there that have introduced me to new products and expanded my organic knowledge, there are also many that make their money selling supplements or are struggling to compete with the bigger stores, so be careful! That said, if you find a good one- support it!

Some grocery stores and many health food stores, sell items in bulk bins. As a child, I remember the bulk aisle at my hometown grocery store – it had just about every candy you could ever want, plus stale cereal and rice that had little gray bugs in it. Times have certainly changed. Most stores that offer bulk items are meticulous about how these items are handled. Typically they require that you wear protective gloves before opening the bins. I have to make a side bar here and say that if you are a germaphobe – bulk aisles are not the place for you. I subscribe to the school of health that says we all need to eat our peck of dirt in our lives and I don’t get hung up on these things. I do the best I can and I trust that everyone else does too.

Buying in bulk is good in so many ways! First, it definitely saves you money because it’s priced cheaper and you can buy only what you need. This is especially handy when it comes to experimenting with expensive spices. Why buy a bottle for $15 when all you need is a half teaspoon? It’s also great when you are trying out a new food. You can buy a modest amount until you’ve test driven it on your family. Second, it encourages you to try new things. I doubt I would have ever discovered artichoke pasta or raw cashews if it weren’t for the bulk aisle. There are so many options and, personally, I get inspired when I see all those bins just waiting for me to open them. Thirdly, you are doing a good thing for the planet when you buy in bins. You are saying “no” to wasteful packaging. Less packaging means less space needed for transport, which means less waste of fossil fuels. It’s the way all food used to be sold before we were convinced otherwise by marketing specialists.

Farm Stands and Farmers Markets are great places to shop for local, organic food. If I’m looking to buy some vegetables this is my favorite place to start. Driving down a road, I see a small card table set up at the end of a driveway with a shoe box weighted down with a large rock and corn and tomatoes piled high on the table and in crates surrounding it. Not a soul in site. Only in the country could you find this scene. Still, I can’t resist them. You won’t find cheaper, fresher produce anywhere.

Lots of farmers big and small, set up farm stands on their own property. If you stop and meet them you’ll not only find a good deal, you’ll make a new friend. Farmers need our support to survive. Everyone I know grumbles about the loss of farmland to development, but if we really want to do something about this, we need to put our money where our mouth is and patronize these farmers. When a farmer sells to a distributor he makes a little money, but when he sells directly to a customer he makes a lot more. Also, meeting the farmer (or some relative there of) gives you the opportunity to quiz them on their farming methods – particularly their use of fertilizers and pesticides. The first time I asked a farmer how he farmed I felt kind of obnoxious and presumptuous, but he was more than happy to talk, at length, about his methods. Note: Farmers aren’t in the farm business just for the money.

Farmers Markets can be a little more expensive than a farm stand, but they are convenient. It’s also a great way to meet lots of farmers in one stop. If you ask enough questions, you might discover that the farm is near your home or that they have stands in other places. If you like their methods, you can ask them which stores and restaurants they sell to so you know where to find their goods.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Let me first say....

Let me say first that I don’t have a degree in nutrition or health, or agriculture, or even science of any kind. My degree is a BA from a liberal arts college, so you know how useful that is – just kidding, I am well-rounded. The things I am going to write about are things I’ve learned from living it and reading extensively on the subject, not school. I just wanted to say upfront that this is my experience and therefore, really my opinion – not scientific fact. Take it for what it is. Use what you can, forget what you can’t. But please, don’t take me to task for the accuracy of every detail. I’m no expert. I’m a mom.

It is a myth that living organically is hard and expensive. It’s actually simple and easy and the way everyone used to live before all our “progress”. I’ve had lots of people tell me “I’m so impressed that you do all this organic stuff. I could never do that.” Yes, you could. I’m truly of average intelligence and I’m as lazy as the next person, and I need at least 8 hours of sleep every night to function well, so if I am doing this – so can you. It’s really a matter of priorities and the conviction that eating better is good for you, your children, and this planet. There is nothing miraculous, difficult, or complicated about living an organic lifestyle. It’s truly simpler, much less complicated really. It’s going back to basics and using less “stuff’ overall.

Maybe I’m misleading you when I say I’m writing about organic living. What I’m going to write about is healthy, responsible living. I do lean towards the organic, because I believe that’s how all food should be grown, but I’m not strictly organic. I believe in local, responsibly grown and/or manufactured products first, organic if I can get them. It would be incredibly expensive, and in my opinion limiting, to buy and eat only certified organic items. We pay at least 30% more to get that little USDA green and white circle. Many farmers who would like to be certified organic point out the difficulty and cost of getting that rating. I live in Amish country, and while most Amish farms are truly organic and have been for centuries, none of them are certified organic. It helps if you can meet the farmer and you live near the farm, but sometimes you have to take a company’s word for it and not insist on the little green and white circle.

I opt for local whenever possible. My thought is this – if it doesn’t have be stored and shipped for long distances, chances are it will contain fewer preservatives and pesticides. It also didn’t require a huge output of energy to get to me. If I can get it without packaging – in bulk or loose – even better. Local products are generally cheaper too – that’s a bonus!

Here’s a little trivia for you - For several centuries, US adults had the tallest heights in the world, thanks to our plentiful food supply. This is no longer the case. According to federal surveys, American men rank 9th and American women rank 15th in average height, shorter than many European countries. We still produce plenty of food and most people are eating lots, but the kind of foods we are eating may not be the most healthful choices. Many factors contribute to this loss of height, but diet is certainly a crucial one.

So we’re shrinking and expanding and we’re sicker than ever. Some days I think our country needs a bop on the head (to borrow a phrase from little bunny fu-fu). How can we be so smart and still be so stupid? Here’s the only statistical evidence I have (and it could be blown out of the water tomorrow by a persistent flu strain) – my kids don’t get sick. In the past two years since we’ve gone organic, we’ve been to the pediatrician only once between well visits (for a sore throat that turned out to be just that, not strep). In fact, if we weren’t constantly pulling them out of school to visit relatives, they’d get perfect attendance awards.

OK – I’m way past my word limit (I’m aiming for 500 words or less), so I’ll stop. I told you I had a lot to say.

The Beginning.....

OK, first I have to say I’d never even followed a blog until this past week. So I definitely do not know what I’m doing. That should excuse a lot, I hope.

I’m starting this blog because I’ve been writing a lot lately about trying to live an organic life on a real world budget. I’m finding I have a lot to say and learn about this topic, but I’m not sure where all the information is leading me. I’ve had several friends ask me how to eat/live more organically and there is so much to say and I can never think of it all at the time of their question. I’ve also had lots of people roll their eyes and say they’d love to do the organic thing but it’s too expensive or it’s too hard. It’s neither of those things.

I’m going to write about living organically for those of us who can’t afford 100% organic cotton clothing and fair trade harvested organic chocolate. My family has actually saved money by living and eating organically. I’m going to share what we’ve learned (many times the hard way) in this blog and hope that you’ll pass along your ideas too.

My motivation for living an organic life began about two years ago when my youngest son developed the autoimmune disorder alopecia areata. He was four when all of his hair fell out in less than two months. It was scary and deeply painful for me. He handled it great. There is no effective treatment for alopecia areata and no one knows what causes it. I had to hear that from doctors at Hopkins and Hershey before I accepted it, but eventually I could say it without breaking down. It took a bit longer before I could resist the urge to punch each person who said, “It’s just hair.” But in the end, it was just hair. My child is incredibly healthy otherwise. And he’s incredibly healthy because of the way we are living and the food we are eating. My strategy is to make his body as healthy as it can be and maybe it will figure out how to right itself. That’s what launched this journey and I’m grateful to be on it.

I’m going to stop now because all the advice I read on blogging says that people won’t read long entries. I have lots more to say, so beware.