Thursday, February 25, 2010

Green Decorating or Do We Really Need a Ceramic Rooster?

Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t easy, especially when it comes to shopping. Lately I find myself immobilized by indecision, blocking the aisle as I contemplatie a potential purchase. There are so many things to consider. I’m not talking about food shopping, that’s easy for me. I put a priority on the things I put in my body and there aren’t nearly as many factors for me to consider beyond how/where it was grown/made and whether I can afford it. Not so when it comes to home décor.

My first issue is that it pains me to spend money on something that is not useful. I’m sure there’s an argument somewhere supporting the need for a picture on the wall or ceramic rooster on the shelf, but I don’t think I can make it. Still, I realize the things that decorate my home inspire me and make our house feel more like a home. It’s just that when it comes to decorating, all the air goes out of me because I’d much rather spend that same money on mulch or blueberry bushes or horse feed or something much more useful that doesn’t require dusting. My true handicap is that I have no earthly idea how to decorate. I can walk into someone else’s beautifully appointed house and admire it, but when I look at my own walls I can’t picture what they need (besides a good scrubbing). I’ve never watched a home decorating television show (and I can’t imagine a worse torture) and the closest I’ve come to learning anything about decorating was thumbing through a Martha Stewart Coffee Table book at the dentist’s office. My living room walls were primered for seven years before I finally decided what color to paint them. And that would never have happened if an incredibly gifted decorator friend hadn’t told me what colors to paint. (My bedroom is still a beautiful shade of Kilz primer, but I’m getting dangerously close to picking up some paint chips)

My personal decorating issue aside, even if I knew that ceramic chicken was absolutely perfect for my living room shelf, I would still struggle with the purchase. I don’t know where it came from, how it was made, who was mistreated in the production of the chicken, or whether the glossy paint or metal feet are made with toxic materials. I’ve been aware of some of these issues on the periphery of my life, but now when I consider buying something I don’t need and has very little purpose and will cost me significant money, they matter a little more. I don’t want my callous purchase to further the mistreatment of workers or the planet and I certainly don’t want to pay to bring something in to my house that could potentially harm my family’s health. See why I get stuck in shopping aisles? Too much to consider.

We’re getting ready to renovate our master bathroom that is 6 x 6 feet and being slowly consumed by mold. This has led to great discussion on what kinds of fixtures to install and flooring and, heaven forbid, paint. In my initial fantasies about this future bathroom, I was hoping to use green, sustainably made products. That was until I saw the price. It would cost nearly ¼ of what our house is worth to truly make our bathroom “green”. Body & Soul magazine had a recent feature called, “50 tips for a Greener, Cleaner Home”. I couldn’t wait to read it. There were a few helpful tips like replacing paper towels with washable cloths and placing water jugs in your freezer to fill up the unused space (what unused space? My freezer is maxed out.). As much as I enjoy the magazine, I was truly disheartened by the bulk of the article. There were lots of great ideas for greening your home, if you happen to work on Wall Street and will be getting one of those $340,000 (average) bonuses this year. How about some Chrysalis Wall Flats (tiles) made from renewable bamboo pulp - $86 for 10 tiles? Or a chair constructed using FSC-certified wood with zero-VOC finish and upholstery colored with low-impact dyes – just $7,278? A cedar composter for only $300 or a dollhouse for your child that has a tiny wooden windmill, solar panels, a rain barrel and recycling bins for $240? To be fair, there were some relatively reasonably priced gadgets, but that’s just it, 40 out of 50 of the “tips” involved buying something. Is bringing something else in to your home making it greener?

Maybe the happy medium is replacing your things that no longer work with more eco-friendly ones (if you can afford them), but not throwing out functioning items just to have a greener version. I take issue with the idea of throwing out something perfectly useful that you already own (and probably purchased when you weren’t so enlightened) just so you can feel less guilty about owning it. It’s not very green to add to our overburdened landfills and probably cancels out all the good you do purchasing that new eco-friendly gadget – that means you still have to feel guilty.

Which brings me to the issue of price. I’m not naïve enough to think that our capitalist society isn’t going to figure out ways to make a buck on this green movement, but I think it is up to all of us to question their motives and look carefully at their products. Sometimes it truly does cost more to make a product more responsibly, but sometimes that eco-friendly label is simply an excuse to jack up the price. Don’t buy in to that. As I consider our new bathroom, I’m going to do my best to make it green, and I’m really hoping we can get some bamboo floor mats and the truly cool Evolve Roadrunner low-flow showerhead that saves eight gallons per five-minute shower ($40), but you can bet it will require a few more internal debates in the shopping aisle as I consider what my options truly are and whether I can afford them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Flaxseed Everywhere

What's all this fuss about flaxseed? Well, just in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t noticed the six million new products “with added flaxseed!” on the label, let me tell you. Flaxseed is one of the healthiest things you can add to your diet. And you don’t need to buy any of the fancy new (processed) food to get it. Before I tell you all the sneaky ways to dose your family with plenty of flaxseed, let me share with you why you should eat it in the first place.

I read about flaxseed over a year ago when my hubby’s cholesterol was reaching levels that were kind of scary. The doctor was on the brink of putting him on drugs for cholesterol and implored him to change his lifestyle. Now, let me tell you about my husband’s lifestyle – he’s thin (he prefers the term “lean”), doesn’t exercise enough but splits wood and rides his bike on occasion, doesn’t like sweet food, and eats most of his meals here at our house where his crazy wife won’t buy processed foods and is always coming up with another new “healthy” recipe. Since I can’t convince him to give up his coffee or beer, there wasn’t much we could do about his lifestyle. So I began adding flaxseed to everything I could – pizza crust, bread, cookies, and just about anything baked. I couldn’t get away with putting it in anything where it’s pasty texture would be noticed, but if it went in the oven, it had flaxseed in it. Guess what happened? At his appointment, approximately six months after I began the flaxseed assault – his cholesterol was just fine. The numbers that were supposed to be low, were low and the numbers that were supposed to be high, were high. So there. That’s enough proof for me to spout off about the benefits of flaxseed for you!

But just in case you don’t trust my personal case study, here’s what the experts say:
Mayo Clinic Nutritionist, Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., says: "Flaxseed is high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and phytochemicals called lignans. Flaxseed is commonly used as a laxative (to improve digestive health or relieve constipation). Both flaxseed and flaxseed oil have been used to help reduce total blood cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels and, as a result, may help reduce the risk of heart disease." The docs at WebMD added that flaxseed can help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. It can also reduce inflammation and hot flashes. It can be good for arthritis, depression, constipation, and Chrohn’s disease.

Flaxseed comes from the flaxplant and has been around for centuries. In fact, King Charlemagne, back in the 8th century ordered all his subjects to eat it because he believed in its health benefits. Somehow, we lost the King’s memo, but mark my words, you’ll be seeing a lot more fields of flax in the near future. Fields of flax will be beautiful too – the flower is a pretty blue color with delicate little petals on long stems.

Flaxseed contains three ingredients that make it such a phenom:

1) omega-3 essential fatty acids - I know you’ve heard about these and their heart-healthy effects. Each tablespoon of ground flaxseed has about 1.8 grams!

2) Lignans – these are antioxidants and flaxseed contains 75-800 times more lignans than other plant foods

3) Fiber – both soluble and insoluble

The experts say the optimal dose is 1-2 tablespoons a day. I have to warn you that eating it straight could be tough. You can buy flaxseed oil, but it doesn’t have all the benefits of the straight seed. It’s best eaten in a ground form (flaxseed meal) and even then can make some foods feel pasty in the mouth. That’s why I find it easiest to bake it in to everything. In each loaf of bread I add ¼ cup of flaxseed meal. You’ll have to experiment and figure out how much is too much for your family. Flaxseed does make things moister, which is wonderful for cookies and dough. Store it in the freezer so it stays fresh, especially if you buy it ground.

Ever since I decided to post on flaxseed, I’ve been seeing information about it everywhere. Kind of like when you buy a new car you think is uniquely you, you start seeing the exact same car everywhere, even the same color. No one drove a Pilot until I got one, truly. One tip I read suggested putting flaxseeds in to a spice grinder (like you use for pepper or salt) and grind some in to whatever you are cooking. The idea being that if it’s handy, you’ll be more likely to use it. Clever. I might have to try this. At the feed store yesterday they were selling big bags of flaxseed to feed your chickens so their eggs will be higher in Omega 3’s. Made me wonder if chicken flaxseed is the same grade as flaxseed for humans (it was a bit cheaper, but I decided not to test out the idea). Then I came upon a recipe in Body and Soul Magazine that sounds awesome and mega healthy. I’m all out of quinoa, so I didn’t get a chance to try it first, but I’m taking their word for it and putting it in this post:

Spiced Nuts and Seeds
(Body & Soul Magazine)
Mix 3 ups whole nuts with ¼ cup each flaxseeds, quinoa, and sunflower seeds. In separate bowl, whisk 2 egg whites with 2 tablespoons honey, 1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt, and ¼ teaspoon each cayenne, cumin, and cinnamon. Toss with nut mix. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet; bake at 325 until dry, stirring occasionally (about 30 minutes). Scrape from pan while cooling, to avoid sticking.

Here’s a few ideas of foods you can add flaxseed meal to:
Cookies, breads, bagels, pancakes, waffles, pizza crust, muffins, chili, meatloaf, meatballs, soup, oatmeal and casseroles. If you’ve got some other great ideas or recipes, please pass them along. I’ve posted my cookie recipe in the post “To Pack or Not To Pack” March 2009, which includes flaxseed meal.

Hope you’re convinced and already on your way out to buy some flaxseed. Here’s to your health!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tea For Your Floor?

(picture above taken before tea time, picture below taken after tea, sorry no professional photographer was available for the shoot, but at least I kept the puppy out of it!)

I made tea for my kitchen floor today. Really I did. I was inspired by a little organic cleaning tidbit I read about early on in my quest to clean organically. When I overheard it again at the library the other day, I knew I just had to know if it was true. Here’s your organic cleaning tip for the day: Tea cleans wood floors. Today I tested that idea out. I’m sure this post will be one of my husband’s favorites because it necessitated that I actually spend a morning focused on housework. My mom will like it to because when I was vacuuming the floor, I found the pearl she lost from her ring the last time she visited. At first I thought it was the molar my oldest son lost, left in the center of the kitchen table (yuck), and which mysteriously disappeared never to be swapped with the tooth fairy for the traditional gold dollar. (At least gold dollars are the tradition in our house, what is up with these tooth fairies that leave $5 bills? C’mon people – I mean fairies – you make it awfully hard on the rest of us!) The molar still hasn’t turned up. I don’t even want to imagine where it might be. I had my son write an I Owe You to the Tooth Fairy so we could stop worrying about it.

The scrap of paper I was using as my directions simply stated, “2 Tea bags, clean wood floor.” At the time I wrote that cryptic note, I’m sure I understood the concept completely. However, when I pulled out my note to get started, I had a lot of questions. Should I brew the tea first? What kind of tea? Does it need to steep? Just how much floor can 2 tea bags clean? How much water should I add? So many questions, but I was pressed for time so I decided to make it up as I went along. Guess what? It worked. My floor looks great, at least until 3:15 when the first child will enter, dump his filthy backpack, kick off his snow/salt covered sneakers and spill his snack all over it.

I chose Earl Gray Decaffeinated for the simple reason that the box was destined to sit in our cupboard for the next 10 years. I bought it a few weeks ago for my hubby who likes Earl Gray. I figured he could do without caffeine (it being a drug and all). He figured there’s no point to drinking Earl Gray without caffeine. And even though I’m a bit of tea nut, I don’t like Earl Gray. So we’d come to an impasse and the box sat on the counter for a few days before it was crammed in to the back of the cabinet not to be heard from again until somebody comes around collecting food for the needy. It was kind of great to have a purpose for the Earl Gray and I was relieved not to have to sacrifice good tea to my floor experiment.

My cryptic note didn’t specify whether to brew the tea or not, so I compromised. I heated water to almost boiling while considering whether boiling water would melt my mop bucket. I erred on the side of caution and poured it in before it whistled. I used five tea bags even though the “directions” said two because I figured whoever came up with the original plan had never seen a floor as filthy as mine. There didn’t seem to be enough water in the bucket, so I added more hot tap water until I had about 1 ½ gallons of hot water to five tea bags. This felt like the right mixture.

I used two buckets – one for tea and one for clean water to rinse the dirty mop. In only a few swipes both buckets were about the same color (note picture below) and I had to change my clean water bucket four or five times throughout the process. I think the tea did as good a job or better than anything else I’ve used to clean that floor. One area it seemed to excel in was removing scuff marks, so that’s impressive. And it smelled nice, much better than most floor cleaners, although I’m still partial to the scent of Murphy Soap because it reminds me of cleaning tack the night before horseshows when I was a kid.

I don’t know if cleaning with tea is any cheaper than vinegar, I’d guess maybe not, but it depends on your source for tea. Just about everyone has a few stale tea bags lurking around in need of a purpose. I’m all about re-purposing.

As I was mopping the floor, I noticed an especially dirty wall and I took my tea to the wall too. It worked just fine. Made me wonder what else I could clean with tea, but only for a moment. (Sorry, Honey.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Organic is Organic?

How organic is organic? I’ve been giving this a lot of thought since I read an excellent two part article in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal (some name, huh? Think it assumes all its reader’s are intelligent enough to know what intelligencer means? Don’t worry I had to look it up too). The article by Mary Beth Schweigert has lots of side bars filled with data and some good reporting on the truth behind “certified organic”. It was a lot to digest, but I’ll share some of the facts that caught my eye.

“Certified Organic” means that a food contains at least 95% organic ingredients. That 5% is leeway allowed just in case there is no organic version of a necessary ingredient, but it definitely creates a pretty big loophole for the clever, profit-driven manufacturer to duck through.

There are currently 245 “exemptions” that can be claimed by “certified organic” producers that include food additives, processing aids, cleaners, animal medications, and pest controls. The consumer has no way of knowing just how many exemptions have made it on to their plate because labels do not have to reveal any of this. Two of the exemptions include tetracycline and copper sulfate. I’m familiar with these two because I’ve encountered them in my own farm life. I used copper sulfate last summer to (unsuccessfully) battle the tomato blight because I had read it was approved for organic farming. According to its Material Safety Data Sheet, copper sulfate is an algaecide that is toxic to fish and potentially dangerous if it enters public water systems. Tetracycline I recall from my days as a vet assistant years ago. We used it to fight off infections by injecting it directly in to a horse’s blood stream. Turns out it is also used on fruit trees to control fire blight, and its Data Sheet says it is toxic to the human liver and reproductive organs. Might have been good to know that a few decades ago. There are 243 other exemptions that may or may not be as frightening. A few years ago there were only about 75 exemptions, but as organics have become big business (and big business has jumped in to organics), the number of exemptions keeps multiplying. Hmmm….makes you wonder who’s qualifying these exemptions and who pays their salary.

Pesticides approved for use on certified organic farms are made from chemicals found in nature instead of chemicals created synthetically. Arsenic is naturally occurring in nature, but I’m sure none of us would like to find traces in our food. The list of approved pest, weed and disease controls is eight pages long.

All of that in itself would be alarming, but add the fact that currently there are only 16 people paid to run the entire government organics program and one can only imagine the potential for shenanigans in the organic world. Thankfully, my favorite president, nearly doubled the organics budget for 2010 and there will soon be 30 people woefully underfunded and overworked attempting to supervise this industry that reached 23 billion in food sales in 2008 and is projected to grow by at least 18% each year.

Now here’s what bothers me the most. (And I don’t need you to tell me that this was the obvious thing that would happen if organics became profitable). Just about every one of the top food manufacturers in North America (think Kraft, Nestle, Kellogg, Coca-Cola) have all acquired one or lots of the top organic companies. Kelloggs owns Kashi and Morningstar Farms. Heinz owns Earth’s Best, Celestial Seasonings, Health Valley, Walnut Acres, and Spectrum. Probably since I started preparing this post even more successful organic companies have been bought up. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. Maybe these companies will support the original intent of a brand like Spectrum. Maybe these companies won’t be petitioning the FDA to add even more exemptions and loopholes to allow them to make more money and pay off more congressmen. Maybe. We just have to hope for the best, because the 30 people who are charged with supervising these companies are only human and have an entire budget worth about 5% of the annual profits of any one of these companies.

The impact of these large corporations’ marketing reach can already be felt in the organics aisle of your neighborhood grocery store. There you find an amazing number of new organic “convenience” foods, with new products coming to market almost weekly. I’m not sure if this is a good thing. Most “convenience foods” are processed food and like it or not, organic processed food is still processed food. I would imagine it’s very easy to hide two or three or ten “exemptions” in a list of complicated ingredients and it might be necessary to hide behind a loop hole or two when you’re trying to manufacture vast amounts of food at once.

What it comes down to is something I found scrawled on a piece of paper in my files – Farmers need to respect the land. Manufacturers need to respect the customers, and customers need to respect the farmers. I wish I knew if this was an original thought or something I read somewhere (I’m guessing the latter), because it gets to the core of the fundamental problems in our food industry. If farmers would farm in such a way as to respect the land for what it is and can be, the food they produced would be the better for our collective health and the health of our planet. If manufacturers would produce food in a way that respects the consumer, creating food they take care to make as safely, fairly priced, and healthy as possible (maybe imagining that this is the food they will serve their own children), we could trust the products on the shelves. And if the consumer would respect the farmer enough to pay him what his products are truly worth, the farmers could afford to raise food that is good for us.

So what’s a consumer to do (besides write your congressperson imploring them to add some teeth and funds to the agencies governing the organics industry)? The only thing you can do – get to know the farmers and food manufacturers near you. The only way you’ll ever know exactly how organic your organics are is to meet the person who grew them. And make your own food. Don’t give in to the convenience of organic processed food. Not only does organic processed food cost more than conventional processed food, it isn’t a whole lot better on anything except your conscience.

It’s easy for me to say, “Make your own foods,” but I know for many people this just isn’t feasible, so we do the best we can with what’s available to us. I implore you to find out what’s available to you. There are farms and companies all around us who grow and create healthy, whole food. These farmers and local companies don’t have the advertising budget, the lawyers, or the influence that the big corporations have in spades, so you have to do your homework and seek them out. The web is a great resource for finding them, but just talking to people is another. And once you find a local source of good food, support them. I will tell you upfront that local, handmade, homegrown products sometimes cost more than the food you find in the grocery store packages. But the reason we have such unhealthy, empty caloried, cheap food in the store is because we won’t pay the cost of real food. Maybe what we need to do is pay more and eat less. I’m just saying.

In Pennsylvania we have a great resource in the website where you can find lists of restaurants, wineries, caterers, farms, farmers markets, and shops that sell local and sometimes, but not always, organic food. You can find a Buy Fresh Buy Local chapter of your own by logging in to the website at and click on the Buy Fresh Buy Local button. Buy Fresh Buy Local is a powerful movement that is growing fast. Be a part of it and begin to bring change that benefits your community and your health. is great resource for finding locally grown grass fed meat and dairy products, including eggs, cheese, milk, pork, beef, lamb, and chicken. is another site that helps connect you with local farmers, CSAs, and producers in your area. will help you find local healthy food where you are or wherever you travel. They have an excellent blog called GreenFork. will keep you informed on the organic industry and ways you can get involved. This site will alert you to what’s going on in the industry near and far, in addition to helping you find the organic products you need.

In all my surfing I even discovered a delivery service that delivers local, organic products to your door (for a price I’m sure), plus green gifts and “plantable gift cards”. Since I survive with dial up, I can’t follow every link I encounter, but you can at

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blizzard Thoughts

I had planned to write a wonderful post today about using tea to clean wood floors. But just in case you don’t live in the mid-Atlantic or northeastern United States, I’ll tell you why it’s futile. It’s futile because I am trapped inside a house with three overly active children, a husband who doesn’t sit still, two dogs that have no use for the snow mat just inside the door, and two cats that feel the need to go outside several times an hour to see whether or not there is still four feet of snow on the ground. There is absolutely no point in cleaning a wood floor with tea or anything else when all the above named creatures are tracking snow in and out and in and out all the live-long day. My original plan involved cleaning the floor on Wednesday and writing about it today, but then blizzard number 2 struck. So instead, I spent the day cooped up much like the chickens are right now. Hopefully the chickens are getting along better than the children.

I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself and my chickens, but luckily I had my perspective adjusted on both counts. I was talking with a friend who lives in the Teton Valley of Idaho this morning (where I might note there is barely a foot of snow covering the ground) and she was giving me her thoughts on being snowbound. She pointed out that at least we had space and lots of stuff to entertain ourselves. Just imagine if you lived in Laura Ingall’s time and you lived in a 12X12 foot sod house on the prairie, she said. I don’t really want to imagine that, but point taken. At least our house has lots of room and in my opinion, too much stuff to entertain us. I would add that we also have lots of food. My daughter and I baked a very labor-intensive carrot cake this morning that is dense and yummy. The recipe calls for 5 cups of grated carrot – that kept her busy (and quiet) for 20 minutes!

The noise is what gets to me in these situations. Yesterday morning I actually paid my children to read books. It’s not that my children don’t like to read, they love to read. It’s just sometimes they’d rather wrestle, fight, debate, or play imaginary games involving costumes, weapons, flying objects and the puppy, especially if their father is on a conference call with China and needs them to be quiet. I offered a buck a book and they promptly settled in on the couch with books in hand. I was triumphant! But only for about an hour, then the temptation to tease and scream was too much and we were back to business as usual with me $5 poorer. I’m sure Laura Ingalls couldn’t jump rope in the house or play volleyball with the couch as the net. So I’m grateful for the space, even if it is a noisy space.

I can’t feel sorry for my chickens anymore either. While trapped inside yesterday with all that snow coming down, we watched Food, Inc. It was an excellent documentary that alternately broke my heart and gave me hope. There was much food for thought that undoubtedly will show up in future posts, but the image that sent my daughter crying from the room was the chicken houses. Those poor chickens. Trapped in the dark, one on top of another for months until they meet an awful end involving being caught by a disrespectful and most likely underpaid hourly worker called a “catcher” who grabs them by a foot and shoves them in to cages to be carted off for slaughter. The chicken “farmers” have to clean out the dead chickens on a daily basis. We all pay for this when we demand chicken for $1.99 a pound. I’ve jokingly said that my chickens are experiencing factory farm life during this snow storm since they are stuck in their house together, but after seeing Food, Inc., I realize they truly have luxury accommodations (note picture).

The storm is tough on all of us, particularly the animals. This morning my 10 hand pony ventured outside of the Run-in Shed for the first time since the storm started Tuesday afternoon. She looked back at me as if to say, “What the #*?#!*!?” I apologized for God and threw her some hay which landed in front of her on the snow at eye level. It’s something when the snow comes up to your chin, but imagine when it’s over your head.

Gracie, our puppy, had a great time swimming in the snow. I’m sure this storm will be one we tell our grandchildren about, so I’m doing my best to appreciate the moment. And the snowblower.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

But What Happens When You Turn Them Loose?

I was reading the latest survey of US Families Organic Attitudes and Beliefs conducted by the Organic Trade Association for 2009. It is encouraging that 73% of all families buy organic products at least occasionally. It further stated that families that buy organic choose organic for health reasons. We are concerned about our children’s health. But what about our own health? We seem to get serious about two things after we have children – health and religion, OK and maybe finances. I won’t touch the topic of religion for a multitude of reasons and discussing finances makes my mind glaze over, but I am curious why it takes the miracle of childbirth for most of us to turn our attention to matters of health.

I’d be the first to admit I didn’t take very good care of my own health prior to having children. I exercised some, but only to have fun or lose weight. My diet was dictated by what I could afford more than anything else. I ate a lot of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, drank diet sodas like water and loved good, greasy “bar food”. I never thought about the connection between what I ate and my mood, health, or energy level. It took having children, and having a sick child at that, before I really began to take care with my own health.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t wish I’d wised up much earlier. I worry about the long term damage done to my body. But, being a person who tries not to dwell on things I can’t change, I focus on now. Now I eat whole, clean, unprocessed food, exercise my body and mind daily, and avoid caffeine, chemicals, and mean people. I relish my sleep time and guard it carefully. I’m pretty healthy and as far as I can force them to be, my kids are too. But why did it take having a sick child to get me to this place?

Why is it we don’t see our bodies as the temples they are until we have children depending on us? I’d like to think that is changing, but I don’t know too many health-conscious 20-year-olds, (besides my niece – you go Mary!). How do we change this trend? I’m sure lowering the cost of organics might be a first step, but since that is largely out of our control, I’ve been trying to come up with other ideas.

How can I teach my own children the importance of taking care of their health? I worry that the moment they are free of my restrictions they will spend their days glued to a screen of some kind, stuffing their faces with cheese curls, tastekakes, artificially sweetened pancake syrup, and Coke. These are the things they feel deprived of on a daily basis. I’m terrified my oldest will drink strong coffee, stay up all night, and live on cheezits, my daughter will maintain a constant high brought on from a diet of straight sugar, and my youngest will enter the first hot dog eating contest he encounters (and win!). I’ve told you before that I am a “mean” mom. I comfort myself by envisioning them as parents some day when they will come to me and say, “Wow, Mom, how did you do it?” But what if they don’t?

My own parents were pretty strict about food, refusing to buy sugared cereals and withholding dessert unless you ate your dinner. I remember my mom making yogurt and growing sprouts. I distinctly remember not appreciating those endeavors. So how do I break the cycle? How do I help my kids do what I didn’t – care about their own health? Maybe it’s not possible, maybe it’s part of the evolutionary process. Perhaps no matter what I do my kids are destined to rebel against my ways. I’m holding out hope that’s not the case. Just in case my children (and yours) aren’t as hard-headed as I was in my youth (no comments please), here are a few ideas I have to help all of us raise healthier humans from start to finish:

1) Help children see the connection between what they eat and how they feel. If my son comes home from a party with a tummy ache, we talk about what he ate at the party. We connect the dots between 3 hot dogs, 2 pieces of cake, half a bag of Doritos and the pain he is in now. He might do it again, but he’ll realize as he does it that there will be consequences. When my daughter came in from sledding yesterday and grabbed a jar of almonds to munch, my husband said, “All that sledding wore you out. Your body is craving the protein and good stuff in almonds.” (I could have kissed him! It’s wonderful not to always be the parent they roll their eyes at.)

2) Set an example. None of us is perfect when it comes to a healthy lifestyle, and you don't need to be either, in fact your kids will probably learn more if you're not. When I’m tired and grumpy, I apologize to my kids and I explain that I didn’t get enough sleep or I ate too much sugar. It’s not the kids fault I’m so grumpy, it’s my own. And it can be prevented. I try to serve and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables at every meal. I almost always have a salad bigger than the rest of my meal at dinner. And I get up every morning to run. They may not say anything but they notice (especially when I’m not back in time to cook their oatmeal). Will it make a difference down the line? I don’t know, but I’m a firm believer in the adage, “Children do what you do, not what you say.”

3) Allow them to have the forbidden stuff once in a while. I still buy that nasty syrup they love on special occasions. You can usually find a box of cheezits in my pantry, but it’s rationed for packing lunches. This time of year, Cadbury Crème Eggs are my favorite splurge. Hopefully, I’m teaching them that it’s OK to have this stuff occasionally but not a good idea to make it a part of your daily diet.

4) Make it easy for your kids to get exercise. Invite them for a hike, ask them to walk the dog, sign them up for organized sports (don’t worry if they aren’t the most valuable player – it’s exercise you’re after, not trophies). Believe me I know about all the driving (and waiting) and hassle and late dinners involved in organized sports, but think of it as an investment in their health, not your sanity. Plan a vacation that involves exercise. Install a basketball hoop. Build a soccer goal. Organize a kickball tournament. A lot of kids won’t move off the couch voluntarily. Move them!

5) Buy a variety of healthy foods so kids are well-versed in what is good for them. Don’t just keep apples in the fridge, you’d get bored of them too. Try cherries, raspberries, clementines, mango, kumquats (my favorite), and pineapple. Same goes for veggies. Every kid eats baby carrots, but sweet red peppers are even better. Take your kid to the grocery store and explore the produce aisle. Find something neither of you has tasted. I buy lots of different nuts for my kids to snack on – pistachios, almonds, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts. We love it at Christmas time when we can get the big nut assortment and go to town with the nut crackers. Offer lots of new things, but don’t ever force your child to eat anything. Yes, I know fresh fruits/veggie/nuts are expensive, especially if they’re organic, but try skipping the fast food or the processed food and you’ll be amazed what you can afford.

6) Complement your kids when they do good things. If your kids make a good choice when it comes to eating or bedtime or exercise, let them know it. This might be the most important thing you do. Positive reinforcement – we all respond to it.

Will this work? I’ll get back to you in 15 years. It’s very hard to say. But that’s part of the process of parenting. It’s really a lot of seed planting. The germination time is painfully slow and you won’t know if any of those seeds took until much later. Plus it’s unlikely that anyone will acknowledge your efforts for a very long time. Come to think of it, I probably need to thank my own mom for the seeds she planted with that soupy yogurt and those smelly sprouts 30 years ago. Thanks Mom!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Save the Planet - Eat Beef!

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but since it’s all over the press lately (and repetition encourages retention), I have to mention it again. Grass fed meat and dairy products are better for your health, the environment, and the animals (as long as we assume that the animal in question is headed for slaughter one way or another) than grain fed products. So you’re saying to yourself, “OK, maybe the health factor, and sure, the animals are happier outside than inside, but the environment? How do you figure? How can grass fed beef be good for the environment?”

A few years ago studies came out saying cow farts were much worse for the atmosphere than all our cars spewing exhaust. (I’m paraphrasing.) That got all the vegetarians going, but most of the rest of the people, just responded with a collective, “Huh.” We weren’t ready to give up our cars or our cheeseburgers. But new research is showing that grass-fed animals can actually be a net-gain for the environment. Here’s why – Grass fed animals eat grass, poop all over a field, then trample that poop in to the ground. That’s all they do. They don’t stand in a feedlot on top of their own poop, require lots of antibiotics, and eat thousands of pounds of feed. They do fart more though, which any honest vegetarian will admit is the result of a plant based diet. I know you’re doubting me now if you’re a big believer in the cow-emissions-are-increasing-global-warming-so-we-shouldn’t-eat-cows movement, so let me explain in a little more detail.

A grass-fed animal, we’re going to go with cows here because they seem to take most of the blame for the air pollutant theory, lives outside in a pasture. The farmer rotates the cows from pasture to pasture allowing the cows to eat the grass, which triggers grass to grow (as anyone who owns a lawnmower can attest to) creating more grass. They add fertilizer to the equation in the form of manure that is trampled in to the ground. This manure actually feeds the soil and makes it healthier which keeps the carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere. Less carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere = a good thing. Pretty neat system, wonder who thought of it.

A grain-fed cow raised in a feed lot (like 99% of all the beef cattle raised in the US) on the other hand, does not distribute his manure far and wide, rather he stands in it. Periodically the farmer must redistribute these vast amounts of manure somewhere else which when dumped in such large quantities, poisons the land and creates “dead zones” in the nearby waters. Ask any community living amongst a factory farm operation or two and they’ll tell you the real problem with feedlot operations isn’t the antibiotics they pump in to the cows threatening our health, it’s the poop. What to do with the poop.

Add to the poop issue, the cost to our environment of feeding large numbers of feedlot animals. This requires vast amounts of corn, grain, and soybeans. (We grow a heck of a lot more corn and soybeans for animals than we do for people.) How do you suppose grain and soybeans are raised? By clearing enormous parcels of land and forest to grow these crops which must then be planted, tilled, fertilized, pesticided, harvested, and transported to a feed company. Then they must be treated, hulled, cleaned, bagged, and transported again. That’s a lot of energy expenditure and pollution production. What do the grass-fed cows eat again? Oh yeah, grass made by the rain and the sun and the cow’s own poop.

So now, hopefully I have you on board in regards to grass-fed products being better for the environment. Let’s turn to how grass-fed products are better for your health. Three big reasons stand out for me:

1) Grass fed meats have significantly less saturated fat and are higher in omega-3’s, a heart-healthy fat you’ve probably heard a lot about lately. Omega 3’s are good for your heart and essential for your brain’s health, helping to ward off depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s. Fewer trans fats also means fewer calories, always a plus!

2) Grass fed meat has more vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C also. There’s just a lot more power in their punch than grain-fed beef.

3) Maybe the most powerful argument for the health benefits of grass-fed meat and dairy products is that they are high in CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). CLA is a powerful anti-carcinogen which also has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and fight inflammation. The Journal of Dairy Science states that grass fed animals can produce 300-500% more CLA than grain fed animals. (In checking my facts on CLA, I came across this gem: Kangaroo meat has the highest concentration of CLA. Just thought you’d want to know in case it ever comes up on Jeopardy.)

So grass fed meat and dairy products are much healthier for your body, helping you fight cancer, heart disease, and a whole host of other ailments. I can also tell you from experience that grass-fed, dry aged beef is delicious. I promise once you try it, you’ll have a hard time eating a piece of meat out of the case at Walmart. There’s just no comparison. Same goes for milk and cheese from grass fed cows - the flavor will make a believer out of you. Forget all the save the planet stuff, taste alone makes me a believer.

I don’t think I need to argue the case for grass-fed being a better situation for animals. (If you’re in doubt, check out the movie, Food Inc. or read Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan). If you don’t eat meat on principle, that’s one thing, but if the reason you don’t eat meat is because of the living conditions of so many factory-farm animals it’s time you put the power of your wallet to good use. We pay more for grass-fed meat for many reasons, but to me it’s worth it. Grass fed meats and dairy products do require larger amounts of land (although possibly less if you consider the land you don’t need to grow feed you won’t need), longer growth time (you can fatten up a cow on grain in half the time it takes to raise a grass fed cow for market), and they necessitate smaller farms. But if consumers demand and are willing to pay for grass-fed products, the market will respond and soon it’ll be the factory farms and not the family farms that are going out of business. And we might even need cowboys again to round up all those grass-fed cows! Bring on the cowboys!

There is the argument that we can’t afford to feed the country on grass-fed beef. There won’t be enough to go around and most people can’t afford it. Maybe. But I’m not the kind of person who accepts that defeatist attitude. I believe we can do anything if we lay aside our self-serving ways and open our minds to new (or old) ways of doing things. Economics 101 taught me that increased demand will increase supply and increased supply will lower prices. Maybe we all need to eat less and waste less. Seems to me as I learn more and more about eating healthier, I’m learning that we need to go back to the way we fed ourselves a century ago. All this progress has made us fatter and sicker. I’m no scientist, but I can see a clear correlation between the increase in heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, mental conditions, and obesity and the way we raise our food animals and process our food. Animals were not designed to stand in feed lots and our bodies were not designed to eat food that has already been processed.

I’ll get off my soapbox now and just implore you to read the packages and buy meats and dairy products from grass-fed cows. Not only will buying grass-fed products make an economic statement, improve your health, and taste better, but it just might help save the planet!

If you need help finding grass-fed products or want more information, check out the website

(Cue the Kiwis to tell us that all the meat raised in New Zealand is grass fed!)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Starting From Seed

There are lots of books out there with lots of information on starting seeds. I’m going to trust that you know how to use the library to look up information on the seeds you plan to start. What I’ll share with you here is my own system for starting seeds. It’s not the premiere master gardener version of organic gardening, but it’s the version that works in my basement which is where my own personal master garden begins.

First thing you need is a place to start seeds. This can be big and fancy and expensive and purchased through some big and fancy gardening supply company, or it can be a simple book shelf with a grow light affixed to the top of the shelf. Some people also use a sunny window. I haven’t got a sunny window available that is safe from children or critters, so I stick to my homemade light box in the basement. Sunny windows can also be too cold for some seedlings. My box (pictured) is a simple coffin model made out of plywood. A light is hung by chains that descend through a hole in the top of the box. I can raise and lower this light simply by pulling the chains up through the hole and securing them with my high tech 10-penny nail, but you can also use a stick or pencil. The advantage of raising and lowering your lights is that you can keep them close to your plants and raise them as the plants grow. Lights that are too far away from the plants can grow pretty spindly seedlings. The side of my coffin/grow box is removable so I can access the trays of seedlings.

Of course I outgrew that box, so on the top of the box we created another grow area for older seedlings that don’t need as much warmth. These seedlings grow under lights that descend from the ceiling. I can start several hundred plants this way. Basically you need a place where your seeds will have access to light 12-16 hours a day and be relatively warm and out of harm’s way. You also want to put them somewhere you won’t forget about them and neglect to water them. Oh, one more thing – you need a light timer unless you think you can remember to turn on and off your lights every day. (You can’t. Really, you need the timer.)

Once you’ve secured your growing location, the next step is containers, growing medium and of course, the seeds. There are many systems for seed starting that can be purchased through garden centers and hardware stores. I’ve tried quite a few. I don’t recommend them. The seed “pellets” are basically compressed seed starting medium that will get your seeds started, but take them no where else without a lot of help. I once used seed “tubes” which were long skinny tubes of compressed seed starting medium which reminded me of the test tube shooters they used to hand out in bars at happy hour (do they still do that? I’m so old and beyond the bar scene, I wouldn’t know. Happy hour to me is about 9:30 at night when the last kid has gone to bed.). The seed “testtubes” really were super space efficient, but fell apart when I went to transplant them. I’ve also tried making homemade pots out of newspaper, which I liked because of the whole re-purposing/recycling angle, but was actually a lot of work and pretty messy. I suppose you could buy plastic seed starting containers or re-use containers you purchased seedlings in (if you save them). What I use is old yogurt containers. They are the perfect size and abundantly available. I use a drill to poke three little holes in the bottom so they will drain. I use the tiny yogurt containers to start onions because they don’t seem to need as much space and I need to start so many onions. If I’m starting a new tomato, I might use a sour cream container to give it plenty of room, but mostly I use the regular size 6-8oz yogurt container. When I’m finished with them I rinse them and stack them and can use them again.

When it comes to dirt, I make my own. The seed starting mediums that are out there drive me nuts. They are too light and don’t retain water so well and are only meant to “start” seeds, not grow them. So if you use a straight seed starter from the store, you’ll need to transplant your seedlings to a growing medium as soon as they are viable. I only want to transplant my seedlings once – when I put them in the garden. There’s too much danger of hurting the plant when you move it, plus who wants twice the expense and twice the containers? To start and grow seedlings I use organic spaghnum moss mixed with organic potting soil. You can also add vermiculite and/or compost if you have it. I always seem to forget to buy the vermiculite and I save the compost for the garden, so although I have other intentions, every year I seem to use the moss and the soil and it works out fine. The moss keeps the soil light and allows the seed room to get going and potting soil feeds it as it grows in to a hardy seedling. This works for me, but you do what you want. Either way works, I’m just all about keeping it simple.

Before you put your precious seeds in to your growing medium, you need to prepare the soil. I fill the pots and even tuck in the label of what I’m going to plant (popsicle sticks work great for labels and can be used at least four times, once on each end). When they are ready, I place the yogurt containers in plastic trays (re-purposed under-the-bed boxes). I fit the yogurt containers snugly against each other so they won’t float when I water them. Then I moisten the soil by filling the trays they sit in with water so that the pots can soak up moisture. When the top of the soil is moist, I’m good to go. You have to pay attention to how much water you use because you don’t want waterlogged soil. Misting the soil from the top only succeeds in getting the top wet and will quickly dry out. As long as you’re cool with misting several times a day, that’ll work. I haven’t got time for it so I water from the bottom. Keep the trays somewhere warm. Ideally you want the soil to be 70 degrees, but my house won’t be that temperature until June, so I cover my soil with plastic wrap and hope for the best. I’ve been able to start nearly all my seeds with this method, so I’m fairly certain the 70 degree idea is a fairy tale.

Some seeds benefit from being soaked for a few hours or overnight. Read your seed packet or check out a copy of Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, a great resource. If you’re serious about organic gardening you’ll need to budget for buying a copy. It was revised recently and will set you back $25 new, but it’s been in print for 50 years, so I’m sure you can pick up a used copy for much less.

Germinating most seeds doesn’t require any light. I plant my seeds and cover the trays with plastic. Then I place the trays in the warmest room in my house. Once a few little green noses poke out of the soil, I move them to the light box. From there it’s just a matter of monitoring the moisture in the soil. I generally plant 3 or 4 seeds to each container and then thin them out later, keeping the strongest plant.

Timing is pretty critical when it comes to deciding what to start when. You need to know your last frost date for your area. From there you count backwards. Onions need about 12 weeks and can be planted when the soil is still cool, so they’ll be hitting the pots this week around here. Tomatoes can’t go in until the soil is warm, so I won’t be starting them until late February/early March. If you want to try your hand at growing annuals, you need to start soon. Impatiens and pansies take a good 12+ weeks to get started. This is where a good book on gardening comes in. Figure out what you want to grow and develop a timetable for making it happen.

Growing your plants from seeds is not only much less expensive than buying plants, but it increases your options – you can grow just about any variety you can find a seed for. When you purchase your plants already started, you have a much meager selection, plus you don’t know how they were raised. I haven’t really seen any organic plants for sale at the garden centers in the past few years. Maybe they’ll have them this year, but you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll cost twice what the traditionally grown plants will cost. So there’s price and selection to consider, but there’s also the satisfaction of doing something yourself. That’s priceless. And you can do this. Starting plants indoors from seeds is not difficult. No master gardening degree needed. I promise you’ll enjoy the time spent nurturing your “babies”. I cherish the time spent in my basement, all alone with my plants and my dreams.