Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Recipe for keeping the holidays real

Holiday stress has been more real for me this season than at any other time I can recall. Yet I can't recall a more wonderful long weekend.

Throw in the hassles of traveling 10-plus hours with children, their excitement just because it’s Christmas, the challenge of juggling schedules and no less than four time zones’ difference among the family members, and the worry of making sure that the rest of the family’s expectations matches yours (yes, even “greener” parents worry whether the kids are going to feel that Santa stiffed them this year).

And for a little extra spice, toss in an ear infection and pharmacies closed for the holidays.

Top it off with a blizzard, about-zero wind chills, snow that drifted hip-deep in places and popped exterior panels out of vans, a “check engine” light that glared surreptitiously in the night, a niece that was stuck a city away and highways that were closed.

Yep. It was a recipe for a Christmas disaster.

But here’s the thing about Christmas 2009. It was one of the best holidays we’d had in a long time. (And it was nearly as good as two years ago, when we brought my baby boy home on Christmas Eve.)

We watched my little guy with his new-found obsession with his train set, even without enough wooden tracks really to play with.

We watched my daughter prance proudly in her new gymnastics leotard, jumping up and down with joy when we told her that her grandparents got her gymnastics lessons when she returned.

We teased my niece – who arrived home literally after stomping through snowdrifts to get to her mother’s car after the worst of the snowstorm had passed – about her very toothless grin.

We saw aunts and uncles and cousins who hadn’t gotten together for a positive reason since, very likely, the Christmas we left Kansas City.

We watched the Chiefs lose on TV. (But that was no surprise.)

The road conditions and wild winter weather brought an added blessing: An extra day of togetherness. No racing to cram in Crown Center, the Plaza and other holiday activities. Just hanging out with one another. While I’m happy to finally be back home and in my own bed, sometimes a little slowing down with family is worth the wait. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No beeping here

A word of warning to my family members who haven't done their shopping yet: No beeping, blinking, animated toys need apply.

Here's what we've learned in the week since the day care's Christmas party and a small family birthday celebration:

Out of a blinking, noisy dump truck, a noisy Thomas train, a Fisher Price dump truck (complete what's since been dubbed "Cool Guy" by the recipient) and a wooden truck, guess which toy won out?

The quiet one.

Yep, it's the truck and wooden horses sent from the grandparents that are the big hit. Those horses and truck have traveled around the house and back on a daily basis. The horses hang out at the kitchen table, climb into the crib, gallop on the hope chest and "neigh" the way across my bed. And yes, being in the hands of a now 2-year-old, they sometimes smash into one another as well.

Sometimes flash isn't as much fun!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snowman bread

snowman breadAs much as I enjoy holiday baking, there comes a time when you're just tired of getting and giving plates of cookies to others. Which makes Snowman Bread a fun alternative for holiday baking.

I found this recipe on Family Fun's Web site and figured it was worth a try. You'll need to set aside about two hours for this project, once you factor in the need for the dough to rise and time for baking the bread. But it's a very simple project, and for the effort of one batch of dough, you end up with four breads that you can wrap up, decorate with a ribbon "scarf," share or just enjoy yourself.

In case you're curious, the nose is a dried apricot and the eyes and buttons are dried blueberries. I did find that while the recipe calls for them to be placed on the bread before going in the oven, the fruits all fell off as the dough rised in baking. Instead, I'd recommend, after baking, gluing them on with a small amount of powdered sugar mixed with milk.

Based on the size and what our family eats, I'd guess one bread feeds about four at dinner. Happy baking!

Christmas cookie recipe - 6 generations of munching!

Christmas cookies - everyone has the "must have" recipe. In our family, we've happily munched for decades on my great-grandmother's sugar cookie recipe. And while the recipe says "Christmas," it wasn't just for that. Each year, when we came up to visit my grandmother in Wisconsin, she would trot up a coffee can filled with these cookies from the freezer, just so we wouldn't starve on the way home.

I'll preface this by saying that this makes a lot of cookies. And I mean a lot. Even with my inpatience of simply making these into balls and flattening them, I still counted more than 5 dozen of these larger than normal cookies. Enjoy! We have for years - and our kids are, now, too.

Grandma Johnson’s XMAS Cookies
2 cups sugar
2 cups shortening
4 eggs
2/3 cups milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons salt
6 cups flour or a little more

Mix altogether. Roll out on a floured board. Cut with cookie cutter and bake in 375 degree oven until light brown. Frost when cool, or sprinkle with sugar before baking.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Green journeys - Taking action

The materials of action are variable, but the use we make of them should be constant.- Epictetus (c.A.D. 50–c.A.D. 138)

“We have to join the Sierra Club,” my husband would announce once a year, cussing under his breath about the travesties George Bush would bring to the cause of the time.

And so, every 18 months or so, or whenever prodded in just the right manner, we’d concede and send off our student-rate check to join the Sierra Club. And that was that. No letter writing for causes. No joining local efforts. Just a card-carrying member.

Sure, they got our check. But they never really got our hearts.

For years, I thought I was environmentally responsible. I recycled my cans and newspapers. I turned off my lights. I combined my errands. I went to farmers markets. I even grew a few things that survived into the summer.

But I really didn’t think about it. What made the difference, though, were two little eyes looking at me. And I began to wonder what kind of world we’d leave for her. Would she have clean water to drink? Safe food to eat? Outdoors – that hadn’t been ruined by us – to enjoy?

And so, we started making more and more little changes. We cook more, and not from boxed kits or frozen packages. We actively look at the packaging we bring into our home – not to sweat over it, but to be smart about it. We try to offer more responsible in our shopping, from toys to clothes to care items. We get to know the people who help make our soaps, start our plants and grow our food.

Sure, it may not seem like a lot. I’m still not pounding the pavement to protest how endangered species are being treated or oil drilling. And once in a while, I do write a letter or two on saving the world. These days, though, I’m focusing on launching a quiet attack – by teaching my kids habits that can last for this generation and the next.

This is my submission for the December APLS Carnival on "Green Journeys." It's not too late to contribute yours - email consciousshopperblog@gmail.com by Dec. 15. And read about other bloggers' journeys on Dec. 18 at the The Conscious Shopper.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Silence is golden

An overnight power surge took out our alarm clock and our surge protector, which meant that the router for our cable, Internet and phones were out most of of our day.

At first I felt strangely wierd. The TV I could live without. The Internet meant I couldn't sneak in some work time. But the phones? I felt disconnected in more ways than one.

While our morning meant church and errands, our early afternon posed some questions. Sadly, we'd gotten into the habit of letting our oldest have quiet time watching a TV show while her brother was napping. No such luck today, and frankly, they were wired and wearing on my nerves. (I think the sad fact I accidently typed "wierd" instead speaks volumes too!)

Then creativity hit. I sent my daughter upstairs for some mandated "rest" time in her room. Just read a book or listen to music, but you had to be in your bed. And I whipped up a batch of my great-grandmother's Christmas cookies. (I say that like it's no big deal, but the dough was practically falling out of the mixing bowl, the batch made so much.)

Company snuck downstairs, peeking around the corner into the kitchen. Not yet, I insisted, and she trotted back up the stairs.

I worked in an unusual silence. No music was blasted, no TV noise was on, no telephones rang to interrupt, no "Mooommmmm...." repeated over and over again.

Finally, after nearly an hour of baking and a dusting of powdered sugar covering me after my attempt at making frosting, we were ready to go. I presented my little chef with her own bowl of frosting, which she proudly dumped every holiday sprinkle known to man inside before coating a handful of cookies with her concoction - which was then unceremoniously slathered in more green sprinkles to make the "green sprinkle mountain." I heard stories of her imaginary friend and her excitement over the holiday. Best of all, we talked - uninterrupted - something that rarely happens in a family of four.

At the end of our adventure, our kitchen was trashed, but I'll tell you this - it was a wonderful afternoon. I was almost sad when my husband came home and brought us back to the 21st Century!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cranberry upside-down muffins (diabetic version)

Fresh cranberries are a great treat in the fall. The challenge is, a year later, when I'm faced with still-frozen ones from the year before.

It's difficult finding cranberry recipes that aren't calling for dried cranberries. This recipe uses fresh (or in my case, defrosted cranberries) and is based on one I found on the Food Network's site. Taking in the account a few missing directions and a couple of subsitutions, I came up with a more diabetic-friendly way to use up those leftover cranberries. The muffins were gone by lunchtime.

Cranberry Upside-Down Muffins (reduced-sugar version)

2 cups cranberries, picked over and rinsed
3/4 cup Splenda
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1 large egg
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup milk

In a saucepan combine the cranberries, 1/2 cup Splenda, the sugar and the nutmeg, cook the mixture over moderately high heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, and boil it, covered, for 3 minutes. Simmer the mixture, uncovered, stirring, for 3 minutes and let it cool.

Into a bowl sift together the flour, the baking powder, the remaining 1/4 cup Splenda, cinnamon, orange rind, and salt. In another bowl whisk together the egg, butter and milk, add the mixture to the flour mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined.

Divide the cranberry mixture among 12 well-buttered muffin tins, top it with the batter, and bake the muffins in the middle of a preheated 400 degree oven for 25 minutes, or until they are golden. Let the muffins cool in the tins for 2 minutes and invert them onto a rack.

Note: The original recipe did call for buttering the muffin tips. I used liners instead and it was an awful mess. The writers are also serious about inverting the muffins - otherwise the juice collects at the bottom and makes the tops of the muffins mushy. Despite our culinary challenges, they were gobbled up by lunchtime!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Save the animals

Save the animals.

Really. As a parent, that's one of my greatest pleas this holiday season.

Just about any mother of a little girl can tell you that they're swimming in stuffed animals. Small ones. Fluffy ones. Musical ones. Ones so large that can wear their child's clothes.

If these were real animals, the codes people would be in force.

The problem with these fluffy friends is they're cute. Look at their sweet faces. The soft furr. The just-right-for-snuggling size.

And then they join the herd, forced to a lifetime of being squished in their corral of the parents' choice, largely forgotten until the day mom or dad decide they have had enough and attempt to clean out.

And what can you do with stuffed animals who have lost their love? Parents don't want them. You can hardly donate them. Instead, many of them meet the same fate as one Build-a-Bear, casually tossed on the curb down my street.

This holiday season, save the animals. If you think your family's or friends' children need someone to cuddle, there are little arms waiting for real hugs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First snow


When you're little, the first snow of the season in particular is just magic. The dusting of snow sprinkled over the leaves, the grass. The allure of stomping in fluffy, cold flakes. The dream of snowballs and snow angels.

I confess that our morning delays weren't 100 percent due to the roads (though Hoosiers' general ability to forget how to do winter driving the first snow of the year always amazes me). No, it was watching my two little ones' amazement at the world around them.

They stared out the window. "It's Christmas Eve!" my oldest declared. Boy, we have a lot of Christmases to contend with then, I thought.

The little one said nothing. Instead, he seriously pushed and pulled their chairs so the two of them could sit in front of the window and watch the world. I don't know when it is that our thrill of that first snow wanes, but sharing their moment this morning brought it all back.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A precious gift

This week, I'd learned through someone at my church that an area food pantry was trying to collect 1,000 shoeboxes of gifts for the children served by the pantry. The directions were simple: pack a gently loved stuffed animal, a gently used book, a few candies and an orange. But for the children who'd receive them at Christmas, they would be a welcomed reminder that they were loved, regardless of the circumstances their family was in.

I thought this project was the perfect way to reinforce to my daughter the idea of gift-giving -- and, selfishly, I admit, to get rid of a few unloved toys.
Fortunately, she was interested. She immediately thought of one bear she didn't want (a hand-me-down admittedly) and a book that she didn't like. It felt less about helping others than getting rid of things. As we wrapped the box, I wondered if she got the point of sharing at all, or if this really just was a cleaning-out exercise.

Tonight, I got my answer. Tossed aside in her room was a scrap of wrapping paper, nestled around a stuffed pink cat. I asked her about it, and she said she needed more paper, scrounging until she found a second piece of scrap. And then, she announced, she needed tape.

For 20 minutes, she moved and adjusted and folded and rattled the papers, painstakingly working to secure each and every loose edge.

Finally, I asked her what it was for. It was for her brother, she said.

I silently wondered if she was playing the "present game," when we pretend to give each other a "present" in a well-worn gift bag and practice saying our appreciation. But, no, she was too intense in her wrapping project.

Finally, I asked her if she liked her cat.

"I do," she insisted. "I just thought he would like it, too."
I don't know if next month, she'll remember this was her gift to her brother, but watching her love and care in such a small moment was a blessing in itself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

FARMfood: Green living with chef Daniel Orr: A review

FARMfood is the type of book that makes me want it to be summer again.

A rainbow of colors and seasons pictured within the pages may be enough for some people. But reading the descriptions of the recipes and his stories of food make all the difference in this cookbook.

A good chef should have a love affair with food. While many cookbook authors, if they provide any background into a recipe at all, mention where they picked up an altered a recipe abroad or offering a substition, renowed chef Daniel Orr details the little things. Like how to get around the fact that "turkey burgers tend to satisfy the soul less." Or how to convert portobello mushrooms into "beer food." Or how to best cook a dish in a particular marinade. Or how a cultural lesson was learned while cooking:

This soup is one that I came up with while at CuisinArt in Anguilla. The
Anguillans eat hot soup all year round. I tried getting them to taste some of my
cold soups, but without success. I thought chilled soup would be a refreshing
tonic for the heat, but I was schooled by one old lady who said the hotter the
soup, the cooler you'll be. In the Carribean, squash and pumpkins are used all
year long, not just during the fall, when we think of using them. So this soup
can be served all year round. And for the record, it's not bad cold either.

The recipes range from curious ingredients (cattails, dandelions, wild garlic and smelts) to exciting dishes that are simple enough for a working mom to recreate. I was able to try several recipes with items on hand and was able to confidently juggle the preparation. I will say, that some very basic cooking skills are required. Orr does not stoop to tell you what temperatures oils should be heated in a pan, for example.

What's great about this book is he not only sells you on the ingredients, he shares his love of them and their secrets: from scavenging and growing to how to prepare according to the time of year. And Midwesterners should not shy away from this: Orr shares tips from mushrooming in Indiana to where to find locally produced foods ranging from White Pekin duck to elk. (Want other tips? Check out his podcast.) It's a welcome addition to any food lover's bookshelf.

In full disclosure, I did receive a review copy from Indiana University Press. But you probably knew that.

December rose

Yes, it's December. Yes, I live in Indiana. Yes, I had quality time with my car's window scraper this morning. Yet, I came home to see this treat in my yard:

Just a little way to brighten a dreary day!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Printer ink headaches

A new color printer for an early Christmas gift... Great, right?

Until you find out, to my husband's dismay, that the new printer takes five cartridges of ink instead of two.

Add to the insult is that HP apparently sets your ink to expire and refuses to print if the ink is out of date. Here's one way to get around the hassle.

In the meantime, I'm voting for keeping the old printer running for those day-to-day jobs and using the monster for my photo projects.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The gift of three gifts

Each Black Friday, my mother and I, like so many other people, hit the stores in search of deals. This year was no different - at least on the surface.

We picked up a replacement printer and a needed gift for my husband (which I won't disclose here). Then we ducked into a drugstore to pick up some toiletries that were on the buy one - get a rebate deals.

And then temptation struck.

On the shelf was a plug-and-go game system. Set very cheap in price - and I'm sure the quality was as such - it might be a good idea for my daughter, who asks routinely about Wiis like her friends have.

And for 10 minutes, I stared at the toy, let her play with it, and debated. It was only $20, after all.

But there's something about sticking to your guns. And long ago, well before we became parents, we decided that we'd not bring a game system into our house. And a few years back, we'd decided to stick to three gifts from us: Partly because of the Three Wise Men, and partly because of the chaos we'd seen from friends desperately trying to match the number and dollar amount of gifts for each child.

And, thanks to some clearance sales as stores ushered in new things, we had already selected our three gifts each. The game system stayed on the shelf, forgotten within minutes. Not a word has been said about it since.

There's something freeing about setting limits. There's no discussion, no worrying, no regrets later. No credit card bills to pay off in months to come. No extra clutter to mess with.

Today, I'm simply thankful for the gift of the three gifts.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Don't have a trashy Christmas, part 2: Reducing wrapping and shipping waste

Ninety nine percent of the trappings of Christmas end up in the landfill within six months, I read in the paper today. That's a lot of waste for one magic moment.

Lisa over at Retro Housewife Goes Green started the discussion on how we can reduce the trash in our holiday celebrations, and I'd like to offer a few more ideas that have worked for our family.

While re-thinking our gift-giving can make it more meaningful - and hopefully cut down on your holiday spend and wasted gifts - there are steps you can take to reduce the trash generated in your holiday celebrations. A lot of the trash we generate isn't even from the gifts themselves - it's from getting the gifts to the recipient.

Wrapping it up

We rely heavily on gift bags in our house. It came less from a desire to be green than the reality that I hated to trash the pretty bags after the holidays. I'll admit I love pulling out my Crown Center bags each year - it helps with a bit of the homesickness, in a strange way. But they're easy, and frankly, if the little ones break into the gifts, there's a lot less re-wrapping and re-taping needed.

Because I use bags, I also don't have to rely on bows or ribbons on my gifts, which just go in the trash anyway. If you're dead-set on using ribbons and are feeling crafty, you can find out how to make your own bows here.

Find more ideas for greener ways to wrap your gifts here.

Gifts to be shipped

As we can't be in every city for the holidays, we have to ship gifts to at least one home each season. You can be smarter in how you ship things by following these tips:

Pick flatter or modular sized gifts. Odd-shaped gifts are challenging to find packaging for and often require a larger box - meaning more freight costs and fuel to send - and extra "stuff" to pad the package.

If you must buy an odd-shaped gift (such as the guitar my sister-in-law bought my child last year), consider either padding the package with newsprint, plastic bags or leftover packaging from something received at home at work instead of buying new packing materials. In our office, we're notorious for hoarding boxes and packing materials for such occasions.

Or, buy the uniquely shaped or fragile present online and have it shipped directly from the store. It saves you the gas and hassle of trying to find appropriate shipping materials, and they typically have resources on hand to ship them effectively.

If you have several families in one city, designate a "point person" to receive and distribute the holiday gifts. Chances are they're share a celebration at some point in the Christmas season, and the gifts can be distributed at that time.

Hopefully, as Black Friday approaches, this gives you a few options to consider to make things easier on your family.

Happy holidays!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Handling the holiday juggle

My family is descending upon our home in a few short days, and I confess that I am just not ready.

My planned "cleaning day" off from work was spent deep cleaning - "cleaning the mess that was hiding," as I told my oldest. Junking out, finally, those "sort boxes." Shredding a few reams' worth of paper, held on to for who knows how long. Yanking out children's clothes of every size. And sadly, reorganizing my house.

You can't tell.

Right now, I'm in the "darkest hours are just before dawn" phase of my clean-up, just as my children's and husband's colds have now been shared with yours truly (who's still getting over a sinus infection in her own right).

And of course, we're approaching the easiest of guest-hosting scenarios. Planning dinner for seven isn't a simple task. I'm trying to balance my idea of what Thanksgiving dinner should shape up like with the wants of my family. The first time I hosted Thanksgiving, I asked my family members what was the one dish they had to have. My brother alone can eat a package of Stovetop stuffing. My mother can't live without marshmellow-encrusted sweet potatoes. And my daughter has requested, of all things, pumpkin tarts...and hot dogs.

Me, I confess, I've gotten out of the habit of eating out of a box. We really like making our own foods, baking our own breads. Yet there's only so many burners on the stove, so many hours in the night.

So if you were me, what would you choose? What are the must-haves? What can I live without? Help me decide. The clock is ticking!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Christmas decorations donated

Pleas for help with Christmas gifts this year seem to be coming from everywhere. But can you imagine a Christmas with no signs of the season in your home?

You can make a family's holiday season brighter by donating new or gently used artificial Christmas trees, ornaments or decorations to Fresh Start of Indiana, a nonprofit organization that helps provide transitional services for survivors of domestic violence.

Deciding to pare down? Tired of that fake tree? Want to get rid of that decoration Aunt Millie sent? This is your chance to do something about it. If you're in Indianapolis, call Fresh Start at (317) 541-1655 to arrange pickup or delivery of these items. Christmas donations will be accepted through Dec. 20.

Don't live in Indy? I encourage you to seek out organizations such as this. While dropping donations to Goodwill and similar groups are fine, helping out families who are trying to re-establish their lives - and often don't even have the resources to seek out resale shop bargains - is a fabulous way to remember the true reason for the season.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Santa sold out

Santa Claus is out in full force - and his marketing buddies aren't far behind.

While somehow I've yet to see Kris Kringle pimping products on a commercial, he was already seeing anxious kids at the mall yesterday afternoon. Pushing Christmas in November isn't the surprise.

It was that among the holiday decor in Santa Land were two strategically placed Wii boxes.

Come on. It's bad enough these kids are blasted with commercials left and right. But when they sit on Santa's lap, and that reminder that they don't have a Wii yet (gasp!) is right there? It's cause for many a fight the next six weeks.

Sorry. I just have a problem with that.

Don't get me wrong. I was raised on Santa's day job of schlepping toys on TV. In Wichita, growing up, we always watched "Santa's Workshop" every year, more for the bizarre humor of seeing Toy Boy (who unfortunately lost his head while "zooming around the world" one year). We also got a daily dose of what the latest and greatest toys were. But I don't recall it affecting our wish lists much.

But that last blast of marketing during that pivotal moment of seeing Santa and the product of the month? I think it's a bit much.

Thank goodness when I asked my daughter yesterday if she wanted to write a letter this year to Santa, she replied, "Who's Santa?" Perhaps I have a reprieve for one more year!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Three-season sustainability

The close of farmers markets in the fall always made me a little disappointed. The end of sweet corn and cherry-red tomatoes meant I was destined for months of bland food: tasteless iceberg lettuce, white potatoes and button mushrooms from the supermarket.

But the last few years, I've learned that eating a little more seasonally is not only possible, but I can do it and support the little guys down the road. Fresh from an attempt of a season with a CSA and an experiment with attending winter farmers markets, I'm slowly learning that you can enjoy good, local produce in Indiana at least three seasons of the year.

My first few attempts at visiting winter markets were a bit disappointing. Without the budget to buy grass-fed beef or fresh breads and a little worried about buying jars of pickled produce, I wasn't quite enthused about that time of year.

But this season in particular, I've been pleasantly surprised. The local markets, seeing interest from visitors and vendors alike, are extending their seasons until late October and into November. Our winter farmers market has seen such success that in its second year, it moved to a new location. And I was pleasantly surprised this weekend to be able to buy freshly picked broccoli and bok choy (which we've grown to love), shitake mushrooms (organic - and cheaper than at the grocery store!), hard-necked garlic, permisson (something new for all of us) and more. Box after box of apples, squashes and more provided clues of what would be available in weeks to come.

And this fall, encouraged by an online four-season gardening class I took, we dived in and planted a fall batch of argula, spinach, carrots, radishes, peas and garlic. Granted, growing is a little slow -- I confess that I forgot about it for a time! -- but it's a fun experiment nonetheless. My kids are thrilled to grab carrots out of our backyard, though they're not quite sure what to make of the dirt that comes with it (compared with the perfectly washed and sized baby carrots at the store). As our finances improve and my confidence grows, I'm looking forward to putting more of the information I gained to good use, hopefully being able to grow year-round in our little beds.

The thing is, when you buy something that's fresh - or even better, pick it from your backyard - it's much more enjoyable on the plate. Now, if I can only find that solution for that desolate period between New Year's and the first market openings in May!

This is my contribution for the November APLS carnival on Sustainable Living & You. You can read a wrap-up of these articles on Greening Families on Nov. 18.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ladybug Picnic

Ladybugs have been gracing our home in recent weeks. I'm never sure why people complain that they're around; we happen to love them!

And they're not just the real kind. We've introduced a new kind of ladybug into our cooking repertoire: Apple Ladybug Treats. As you know, I'm always open to new ways to enter
tain my hungry kids and teach them cooking skills. After all, food doesn't have to come out of a box or window in a drive-through!

I stumbled on a cooking challenge through FitCityIndy this month, and we decided it was a great way to introduce new food ideas now that the local farmers markets are slowing down for the year.

We started first with the apple ladybugs, which they claim are for ages 6 and older but can easily be done (the non-cutting part) by preschoolers as well.

Here's the scoop: Halve an apple, scoop out the seeds, and provide your chefs with a small scoop of peanut butter (or alternative if there's an allergy), raisins and pretzel sticks. The peanut butter serves as "glue" to stick on your raisins. The pretzel sticks with some practice (if you're not heavy-handed like me) become the antennaes, and you can put raisins on top.

What's not to like about this recipe? My kids love the ingredients, it occupies them while I'm making dinner and it's a healthy snack option.

Have other great ideas to share for getting your kids involved in the kitchen? Post them here!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The gift of yourself

Our department has a tradition of adopting a family each Christmas. Unfortuantely, this year, when I put it up for a vote, I was floored. A third responded. And of that third, only two said a definite "yes."

The economy was cited as an issue for those declining or on the fence, and I wonder. Here we are in a profession that pays respectably, yet we can't cobble together gifts to make a family's season brighter?

It's not easy asking to be on the receiving end. For families who step forward, they simply want their children to have the things they need (clothing) and a small sense of normalcy (every other kid got something under the tree). I should know. We were there last year.

I can tell you also, that after pouring over families' "applications" each year, these are families who truly do need help. Sometimes they are asking for simple things, like dishes or diapers or a gift card for gas. Sometimes, the kids just want to be normal, asking for a video game or hot toy. And they trust that someone will give them an opportunity for once to forget that things aren't right.

But the thing is, we all can make family's holidays - and any time of year - just a little bit brighter. Two lunches not eaten out can be spent on a shirt for a child. A pizza avoided, a pair of shoes. One less toy for our child could be breakfast for someone else. A week's worth of Starbucks could help feed a family for a few days.

So maybe stretching outside of our comfort zone is just the thing we need. Maybe we buy less this year for our families. Maybe we buy more thoughtfully with the dollars we spend. Or maybe we invest all that time that would be spent shopping into time with our loved ones.

But that little gift of ourselves - those small sacrifices we make - might make a difference beyond measure.

Needing more inspiration this holiday season? You might also like:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

You call this work?

This weekend, I had the joy of doing something few people ever get to experience: Working on a commercial production crew.

It's truly an amazing experience to see everything that goes into the set. About 12 hours of filming alone for the participants - just to create a 30-second spot. Add in crew setting up, scouting locations, basic scripting and the editing process, and a lot is invested in trying to make people change decisions.

As a communicator, I love this experience, and hate that I only get to do this about every 18 months to two years. But when I get to participate, I love it.

Add in the joy of the fact we were using an outside set, and I was all for this experience. Pay me to play in a park on a 60-degree day? OK!
While we missed the rainbow of fall leaves - a rainstorm earlier this month took care of that - the sunlight was perfect, the wind was (mostly) mild, and the temperatures were more perfect than we could ever wish for in November.
I'll let you guess what the spot was for. Odds are you'll never be able to guess!

Recycling glue sticks

Glue sticks - from a mom's perspective anyway, are a far better alternative to piles of glue poured on, well, anything. But the containers pose a problem, and frankly, our budding artist goest through the sticks quite quickly.

Did you know you can recycle them? I read on the Green Phone Booth that Elmer's glue offers a glue stick recycling program. What a great idea! You can get the details here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Light Pumpkin Mousse

I had some leftover canned pumpkin from the other day and wasn't sure what to do with it. I adapted this recipe from a likely healthier version on the FitCityIndy site. By dropping the ricotta and subbing milk, I came up with a treat my kids like.

The Chinese five-spice powder was a surprise. I admit I wasn't sure how that would turn out, but it was a wonderful addition!

Light Pumpkin Mousse

1 pkg. sugar-free white chocolate pudding mix
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ tsp Chinese Five Spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups skim milk
1 cup sugar-free whipped topping

Blend together by hand.

Looking for other pumpkin recipes? Visit the Conscious Shopper for pumpkin and other seasonal recipes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I went to the winery, and all I got was a stinking cookie

Any parent who's faced a car trip knows the kids (and you) get restless after a few hours trapped inside. So this weekend, facing a lengthy drive in the car, I tried to plan ahead and pick activities where the kids could run around in route.

On Sunday, our planned activity was Huber's Orchard and Winery in southern Indiana. I figured I couldn't go wrong: an orchard to run around, a petting farm, an ice cream shop and at least one of us could taste a sample of wine.

Then my dear husband stayed home with the flu. And after a winding attempt at getting to Huber from the back roads from Interstate 64 and meltdowns over putting our shoes back on and going to the bathroom, I was the one needing a taste testing -- and really couldn't.

So after avoiding the crowded tasting room, realizing that I don't have hands to hold a bottle if I purchased on, we wandered on to the farm market portion of the area. I asked if they wanted apples. No. I asked if they wanted pears. No. What did they want? An M&M cookie. Drat.
So after all that winding, a quarter-tank of gas and an interesting drop down a back road so steep they have signs like in Colorado (thanks, Mapquest!), we got 10 minute's worth of a great view.
Just wish I had something to toast it with!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Most wonderful time of the year?

A quick errand to the store yesterday just made me feel overwhelmed. Right now, retailers are jumbling the holidays together and barfing them up like the aftermath of a bad party. A little Halloween here. A little Christmas there. And a teeny bit of Thanksgiving and fall flourishes crammed in just in case.

It’s no wonder my daughter was thoroughly confused when we were at the store the other day. Is it Halloween time? Christmas time? For a kid with little sense of time, it’s visual chaos. And for me, I’d just like to take a breather.

I realize my plea to let the holidays stand for themselves will fall on the deaf ears of retailers, who are quickly ripping down Halloween costumes to make room for Christmas lights, only by Dec. 24 to start ushering in Valentine’s Day. As a former retail widow, I fully understand it’s all about making the next buck.

But when does it stop? Can we ever enjoy the season for what it is?

Thanks for listening to me vent (and putting up with my horribly bad writing!) today!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

College kid catches composting buzz

Composting has been long on my to-do list, but the big hold-up is that it's just not practical for us. Unfortunately, we face an uphill battle regarding homeowner association rules, small lots, etc.

While I've heard there are actual indoor compost bins, I don't have hundreds to invest in one of those at this time.

Of course, today I read today's Star and had one of those "Why didn't I think about that?" moments. Inside was an article about a Butler University student who was inspired to start a composting business. He offers a weekly pickup of your compost pail to Broad Ripple area residents, and promises them some of "the goods" when gardening season's back in full swing.

Maybe this is an idea worth catching on!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cloth diapering: One year of dissing disposables

Cloth or plastic? It's a question I considered with the birth of my second child. Was going cloth worth it if you could only do it part-time?

One year into our family's experiment, I can say that yes, it is. I'm saying as a mom who's juggled cloth through wiggly babies, tumbling toddlers and, now, the start of potty training, all-in-ones are a great resource for moms to have on hand!

When I first seriously considering going cloth at home (our day care insists on disposables), I did the math, and found out that if I went conservative on quantity and washed each night (which I was doing anyways on weekends), I'd break even in 26 weeks. And that's with using them twice a week.

I have had to buy new diapers as the little guy's grown, but I've found that by shopping around you can find brands of diapers that stretch longer across the sizes. Luckily, I found great resources like Toasty Baby, which even delivered the diapers to my home, Zwaggle, and Craigslist. Granted, the latter two required a lot of visits to the sites to find cloth diapers, but when I found them, the prices couldn't be beat. I got 5 cloth diapers for $20 from one and a set of 6 new diapers for the cost of shipping with the other! So for the cost of three packages of disposables, I was set for another six months or longer.

Soon, I got braver and added cloth wipes into the mix. And you can even get by without those, in all honesty. How many infant washcloths do you have lying around your bathroom?

Sure, I may have a little bit more laundry to do, but I simply toss dry diapers and cloths into a box in the bedroom. No folding's required.

As potty training has approached, I've actually found cloth diapers are easier to manage than disposable. He responds to wetness faster, and the cloth diapers don't tear or get ruined after multiple times of opening the velcro to use the bathroom. And my laundry load has dropped as well as we're having more success!

Would I go cloth again? Absolutely. Investing in all-in-one diapers are easy, and, after the initial expense, well worth the hassle!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pumpkin smoothie

Our Pumpkin Smoothie recipe was made up on a whim Sunday afternoon. I sincerely thought I had printed a recipe like this when I ran off several "kids cooking" recipes, but didn't have it when I came to look for it. The kids loved it!

Pumpkin Smoothie
1/2 15-oz. can pumpkin
1 cup vanilla frozen yogurt
1 1/2 cups milk

Blend 30 seconds. Add ice cubes for a thicker consistency.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Our cooking competition (Round 1)

Lunchtime approached, and I was at a complete loss of what to do. Burnt out on mac 'n cheese, grilled cheese and pasta, I faced a fridge with, frankly, a lot of random items.

Two bunches of radishes, eagerly bought by a 4 year old at the farmers market the previous weekend and then forgotten.

A few small kolhrabi, grabbed from the garden before last weekend's promised freezing temperatures.

A bunch of bok choi, a few packages of mushrooms, an abandoned half of an onion and snow peas, all bought with the intentions of making meals that just didn't happen.

I was stumped. And the troops were hungry.

Luckily, inspiration hit: A cooking contest! Think Iron Chef meets desperate mom.

I proposed the idea to my oldest: I would make some different veggie dishes, and they would judge and see what tastes the best. Thankfully, she was sold.

Into a small pan went the kolhrabi, sliced and sauteed in butter. (Not fancy, but as we'd never actually eaten kolhrabi before - we simply picked it because the name was funny - I figured we would play it safe.) Another pan held radishes to be sauteed as well.

In the wok went the main event: Veggie stirfry with a splash or two of teriyaki sauce, served over leftover rice.

The kids eagerly waited. By now, my daughter had deemed herself as "Giada" the judge, and her brother would be "Ted."

The kohlrabi was done first. "It's really juicy and good," she said. Hmm, juicy wasn't quite the word I'd associate it, but I did like the flavor. "Ted" took one bite and spit it on the plate.

The radishes were next. "It's pretty good," "Giada" said, munching away. "You did a nice job. You have good ingredents."

Though we've had cooked radishes before, perhaps these just looked like a pinker version of the kolhrabi. "Ted" spit his out and threw it on the floor for emphasis.

While we waited for the stir fry to be ready, we agreed that we'd go ahead and grow the kolrabi again next year - that much was a success. And then we served the main event. "Giada" gobbled the shitake mushrooms first. "Ted" went for the rice, then took one bite of the snow peas, decidedly dropping the pieces in protest - first on my plate and then on the floor. As added emphasis, down went the fork as well. The plate appeared to be at risk of a similar fate.

Despite one grouchy judge, our little "competition" worked wonders. It got my daughter at least trying a new vegetable or two, and cleaned out my fridge. Now, I've just got to figure out what's for dinner!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Other people's stuff

I'll be straight and just say I've got flu big time on my brain. Thankfully, it hasn't hit the family yet, but I've been swamped with H1N1 communications at work the last few weeks in particular. It's interesting, but I'll be glad when I quit dreaming about it at night!

Rather than hear me rant about being smart and staying healthy again, here are a few articles I've seen that are worth sharing:

Erin writes a great story on eating seasonably on the Green Phone Booth. I have to agree with her - the tiny strawberries we picked from our garden the other day had far more flavor than the pound of red, tasteless things we picked up at the supermarket this weekend.

Beth writes about how cotton clothing just might not be over on Fake Plastic Fish.

I know we're all about saving money these days, but sometimes a little investing is good, too. Rachel writes about 3 great ways to save money over on Small Notebook.

The other day a friend said to me, "Your Facebook always says your work is making you nuts, or your kids are making you nuts..." While it's a bit of an exaggeration (I torment my friends with cute kid stories and social media articles too), I know it's tough sometimes to remember the joys in parenting. FishMama writes about balancing the two on Life as Mom.
And Kellie sums up what other APLS'ers have to say on prolesythizing green. Stay tuned for the November carnival topic.
Have a safe and healthy week!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Birthday blessings

Yesterday I marked the moment where my husband says lovingly I became "halfway to 70." Talk about a heavy moment, when you put it into those terms.

I wish I could say I had a fantastic party - friends together over a good meal and a better glass of wine or two. But I'm just fine with the way it turned out.

Our day was spent in the nuttiness involved with getting ready for guests, chasing two kids and harvesting what was left in our garden before it all froze. Sure, it makes you feel tired just reading that!

Sure, I had a stressful morning. My husband had class and then work - but then, at least the next two weeks he has work. The visit to the grocery store unnerved me. But at the point of becoming broken, my toddler looked up at me, with a huge grin, and proudly announced: "Birthday."

When my brother arrived first from Chicago, the kids clung happily to their uncle, which afforded me the opportunity for a quiet moment cutting herbs, pulling two purple carrots that made it and enjoying the silence until it was broken by a little girl wanting to color with her chalk. I was able to relax somewhat while I worked on washing my oregano and drying them in the oven. I had a great conversation with my brother as we washed and chopped apples from my babysitter - the bags of which will come in handy for some much less stressful apple streudel making for our Christmas gathering.

And after my parents arrived, they joined us for a huge bowl of pasta carbonara - which I was thrilled to have all of the ingredients for without making a second trip to the store (and some of which I'd just grabbed from the backyard) - and a comforting slice of pumpkin pie a friend of mine had made just because.

So it wasn't a wild way to celebrate #35. But, surrounded by the people who love me in their own strange way, it was fine with me.

Oh, and here's the recipe for the pasta. It was found in a friend's magazine, and everyone in the family enjoyed it - it's definitely a keeper!

Carbonara Pasta
1 box spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz. bacon
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped
4 cloves garlic (or more), diced
1/2 c. sherry
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 eggs
1 c. Parmesan
1/4 c. fresh parsley

Cook spaghetti according to directions. Meanwhile, in large skillet heat the oil. Brown the bacon until crisp. Add walnuts, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook 1-2 minutes, stirring often. Add the wine and cook 2-3 minutes more. Drain the pasta and add to the skillet.

In a small bowl, whisk eggs with 1/2 c. Parmesan. Remove skillet from heat. Pour egg mixture into the spaghetti and mix. Top with rest of cheese, parsley and black pepper.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Having faith in your actions

“If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” – St. Francis of Assisi

Sustainable living, living green or any other catchphrase of the week, in part, can be argued a part of living out your faith. After all, what is more appropriate to living your faith than caring for God’s creatures? (Which, in case you forgot, includes us.)

Yet, for as vocal of a person as I am about the little things in life, I’ve always struggled with the idea of pushing my values onto another person. The people who shoved politics or religion down others’ throats – the “my way or no way” types – were the ones I’d avoid the most. So not preaching loudly is (hopefully) what I’ve not practiced this many years.

I do believe actions speak louder than words. For as trite as a saying as that is, it’s true. I can tell you how plastic is choking the fish in the ocean – but I can far easier show you that it’s simple for you to do something about it, that it doesn’t take much time or resources to make a difference in these uneasy times.

Hopefully seeing our very small examples might rub off on you in some small way. After all, our family is living proof that even a one-year-old can grasp the most basic concepts of caring for the earth. Does he understand it all? No. Does he make an impact? I believe so.

I’ll be honest too, that I do hide behind my blog and in real life often have to hold my tongue. I tolerate the husband of a friend who truly thinks being green is a conspiracy. We simply agree to disagree. And there’s too little time in the world to nag a person for sending their kids out with a disposable milk container or single-serving bag of pretzels. Instead of worrying about the little details in life, I focus on the ways we can make small changes to make the biggest difference. That mostly ends up in slight tweaks in our lifestyle, rather than a overwhelming “event” that impacts our extended family.

Which leaves me once again with the words of St. Francis: "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

This post is part of the APLS October Carnival on "Proselytizing Green,” hosted this month at Greenhab. Check out the carnival posting on Oct. 19. Want to participate? E-mail greenhabgoods {at} gmail {dot} com.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Another reason to unplug your appliances

Unplugging your appliances seems like a hassle. Sure you can save energy, but you have to re-plug it in...

Let me give you a reason to reconsider.

Today my husband, who was working on a few projects at home, walked by the coffee maker -- only to see it was sparking! (And it wasn't an old coffee maker.)

I shudder to think what would have happened if he wasn't around. Clearly God was looking out for us!

So if being green isn't a good enough motivation, consider having to replace your home!

Real ways moms save money

Saving money is the mantra these days. Where can we cut corners without impacting ouf lives? And everyone seems to have an answer. But it's not the one that fits you!

The other day, a friend - and not one I'd expect to hear this from - complained about how the many articles on how you can save money are just not helping. Nine times out of 10, the tips are common-sense items that we should be doing anyway. Eat out less? Check. Drive smarter? Check. Shop sales? Check. Cook everything from scratch? Great idea, but sometimes the execution is a bit questionable, and frankly, I have about an hour a day at home when I'm not in full "mom" mode. Time is sometimes of an essence. Negotiate a new rate? Sure, but if you're underemployed, that might not help. Shut off your cable? In my house, no matter how bad things get, I can't win that battle until after the Jayhawks take the Final Four.

I looked at her and gave her my best advice of the day: I let my kids pick dinner. The eyebrow raised.

Really. Think about it: Once a week, usually on the night my husband has school, my kids decide what's for dinner. Typically what they decide on is mac 'n cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich. Paired with sliced peppers, cucumbers or apples, and you have dinner for less than $3. It may not be gourmet, but it's healthy - and eaten. And food that's refused to be eaten doesn't help anybody.

Sometimes we go a little more creative. Pasta dishes seem to be a common theme. Sunday, we tossed pasta with some chicken-apple sausages, some sauteed garlic and about a cup of riccotta - to rave reviews. And tonight my daughter selected chicken and noodles, which are surprisingly easy and a crockpot staple.

Other times, we'll think of ways to get my oldest more involved with the cooking. She's a pro at helping me make a fall seasonal salad of lettuce, apples, raisins and walnuts. And with an interest in being "big," she is learning to cut softer items like bread or some fruits as well.

Here are some real ways moms can save money. You may not see huge savings, and you've likely seen it before somewhere, but at least they're attainable!
  • Make dinner be double-duty. It's not much more difficult to pack your lunch for the next day as you're serving dinner. Usually you have enough anyway!
  • Wipe it up. Cloth wipes are great! While paper towels are easy to use and easy to toss, it's not much more difficult to go cloth. I have a rag bag that the kids know they can tap into to wipe up a spill or a dirty mouth, and then they toss it into the washer. (And yes, you can train a toddler to do that!)
  • Drop the single-serve treats. Not only do they generate an insane amount of trash, but also they're far more expensive. I keep a container or crackers or other non-perishable treats in my car for those emergency situations.

What works for you? Are there ways you're able to save money and live greener without a lot of extra effort?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feeling homesick in the fall

Fall is one of those times when I feel the most homesick. Even though it's been more than eight years since I left Kansas City, I've hit that time of year when I wish I was home.

My in-laws are notorious for marking the seasons, and fall and the Christmas season are the times I miss most. Maybe it's been our working schedule or just being the parent of young children, but I've yet to replicate some of the things I miss most:

Driving to Louisburg for a stop at the Louisburg Cider Mill. My husband grew up in Louisburg, Kan., and went to the cider mill from when we was a small boy and it was a small mill, not the enterprise it is now. But it was always a treat to stop by the mill on the way back from a trip to his grandfathers, splurging on apple cider biscuits, a cold gallon of freshly pressed cider and a bag full of seasonings.

Visiting the Mound City Arts & Crafts Fair. Yes, a drive 90 minutes south of Kansas City for a craft show seemed strange for me when we were dating, but the fair was a huge deal for my husband's family and still is. It was a fun way to window shop - as long as weather permitted. I saw a posting on it from my aunt's Facebook page the other day, and felt a twinge of sadness.

Going to the Haskell Indian Art Market. Housed at Haskell College in Lawrence, it's well worth the drive. I wish there was something remotely close to this in Indiana - the kids would love the native dancers, the fry bread, the music.
Losing my voice at Late Night (or, more optimistically, at a basketball game). I'm a Jayhawk fan through and through. 'Nuff said. It's just not the same catching Allen Fieldhouse on ESPN.
Seeing the Plaza lights. While I never did get to a lighting ceremony in all the years I lived in Kansas City, we loved to wander the plaza looking at the lights after it got dark.

So what did I miss? And what even comes remotely close to this in Indiana?

Note to self

Never plan to successfully take your toddler anywhere in the morning he receives a flu shot. Duly noted for next year.

I had great mommy intentions this morning. I was going to finally get the seasonal flu shots from the VNS at our church (our pediatrician won't do her flu shot clinic until November). If we didn't have massive meltdowns like last year, we were going to pop over to the ice cream shop for a treat. As we've gotten ice cream out maybe twice in my daughter's life, she was sold.

And then life happened.

By the grace of God, there were no screaming kids at the church when we arrived, and the shot experience went fairly smoothly. But even with a pre-dose of Tylenol for the little guy, I was still doomed for failure.

First, the ice cream shop was finally closed. Whoops. Now we have trechery on top of the whole shot experience.

So we stopped at the farmers market, where the little guy progressed until full melt-down mode for the next 20 to 30 minutes. And of course, with fewer vendors and visitors this time of year, everyone knew who the culprit was (sigh). He'd scream over having to go a different direction, lay down on the pavement, scream it out and dust himself back off. Repeat about a dozen times.

And then he saw the "cookie." We walked past a small church baked goods stand, and his eyes were glued to the "cookie." I didn't have the heart to tell him it was a quiche. Instead I offered them both a sample of a "cookie" (OK, pumpkin/cream cheese muffin). They had seconds. And then the little guy, after petting a ferret who was at the market, tried to dive in the bag with his slobbery, ferret-petting fingers for thirds. I cut them off. More meltdowns ensued.

After another stop and pathetic attempt of making an uninterupted purchase, tired of the whining over cookies, I walked back to the church stand. And sadly, I negotiated the purchase of - or more realistically, begged the women what would she'd take for - the entire bag of muffin samples. Seeing that she was sold out of the muffins, I didn't feel too bad at the time. In retrospect, I'm shaking my head in disbelief!

The gallon bag was half-eaten by the time they got home, and it wasn't me. Maybe I should have asked for the recipe instead...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Crayons off the walls: One green (working!) solution

Artistic expression on our walls. I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later. Who knew, though, that it would be so prolific in our household?

Not a week goes by when I don't stumble upon a scrawl or two lovingly created on my windowsills, my walls, my bills, my tables. These are all created with a particular fondness for the color green. I suppose I should be grateful that they coordinate with my neutral color pallete. But still...

The day had to come when my boy picked up the non-washable crayon. Those sneak into the house in such unauspicious ways. From the dinner out with the grandparents. Or a gift of art supplies. Regardless, those wiggled their way into our homes and into the hands of an artiste-in-training.

Sadly, the green look on my bathroom door didn't work for our decor. Sadder still was the fact that not only the water-and-rag method of cleaning wasn't working, but also the 409 and other store-bought cleaners were failing the test. The scrawls might have stayed.

Thankfully, I stumbled online and found out that baking soda or vinegar might be a solution. And I'm thrilled to report, with a little elbow grease and baking soda, my door is scrawl-free! Keep that in mind in case your toddler decides to express himself in a more unusual place.

What do you do with 4 cups of rosemary?

A forecast of lows in the low 30s this weekend means my herbs are facing a losing battle. Last night, I stood in the rain as I started a very soggy harvesting process.

The early results? A bunch of rosemary the diameter of a Nerf ball and the height of my 4-year-old from her head past her waist. I'm guessing that even with sharing with coworkers this morning I've got a good 4 cups or so of fresh rosemary left in my home.

So here's my question: What should I do with it? Post any and all ideas here! Otherwise I'll spend my weekend just drying my branches, which isn't the most exciting way to spend the day.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Strawberry season comes to a close

Stealing strawberries from our yard has become a family tradition of sorts.

Picking berries after we get home from daycare has been an easy activity for the kids. They love the thrill of the hunt and poking among the green leaves to find the tiny red strawberries nestled underneath. And they love the taste even more.

You see, even though we start out with three separate containers for picking, only a drop or two of juice will actually grace the bottoms of the containers before we return inside. More often than not, those berries just go straight to their mouths. I really can't complain...except for the whole eating the leaves bit that the youngest has developed is just a bit too wierd for my tastes.

While I love that they're interested, I'd love to try a strawberry or two this year. Sadly, it's just too late.

I know I should be thrilled that we're still getting strawberries this late in the year. That thrill, though, will soon be gone. I'm watching the forecast, and we'll hit below freezing in just a few short days. Those last few flowers and snow-white berries just don't stand a chance.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Goodbyn: Our Saturday snack solution (a review)

Saturdays on the go are inevitably punctuated by the panic of it being 11:45 and the kids haven't yet been fed. Seeing that they're happily on an 11:15 a.m. lunch schedule at daycare, an early lunch and nap attempts are just part of the routine. But there are weekend days we just need an exception to the rule.

When errands are planned en masse, it typically means racing around the kitchen to grab a few granola bars and sippy cups to hopefully tide them over. I know it doesn't always work, but I can tell you it's tough to pack fresh fruits, accepted vegetables, crackers that won't crumble or other foods into a snack bag.

And then I was approached to review the Goodbyn, a lunchbox made of recycled plastics that's pre-divided into containers for your meal. While the makers promise significant savings from avoiding the heaps of Ziploc bags over the school year, I know that packing lunches are at least a few years away for me. But I'll tell you, it does work for my family's needs.

The Goodbyn is a little challenging to use at first - there's multiple pressure points to snap the lid shut, as opposed to having it hinged - and takes a bit of finessing to get it right. And the amount of food included is huge. I have a hard time seeing that a young elementary-school student, which it's obviously aimed for, could (or should) eat as much as it holds.

To give you a sense on the size, you can hold:
  • the 8-oz. bottle that comes with it (or several cheese sticks, for the parents of preschoolers)
  • two pints of blueberries from the farmers market or a trial or single-serving size box of cereal
  • three or four granola bars
  • several handfuls of dried fruit, crackers, etc., in the small spaces
  • and still have room for more.

We've happily fed three kids out of the box during an outing this weekend and have made a meal for two as a "picnic" in the park.

Of course, the budding artist would love to customize it in the 200 or so stickers included in the set (and hidden from interested fingers at this point).

The cost seems a bit high on the surface - about $30 retail - but if you offset it by the cost of toss-away containers and baggies accumulated over the course of a year, you'd easily come out ahead. Not to mention have a few less dishes to wash, and you can recycle the whole thing once your kid is too "cool" for it next fall.

Disclaimer: In the name of full disclosure, yes, I received a free sample from the makers of Goodbyn to test. But you probably realized that anyway.

Soap's on!

For a toddler who's suddenly obsessed with lining things up, nothing seems cooler than lines of multicolored, scented soap at the farmers market.

For a full 20 minutes on Saturday, I watched as the little guy brought one bar after another up to his nose, then carefully placed them back down in a train-like line. A near-meltdown occurred when I tried to coax him away from the table. The owner was amused, chuckled and tucked away her card in the bag when I broke down and placed an order.

Her parting gift? Two slivers of soap, one for each child.

My guy proudly clenched that soap in his fist as we trotted around the market, occasionally catching a sniff of his bar. We had an nearly incident-free morning, until I began to drive away.

"Moooommmm!" I heard in that whiny drawl, strung out as only a tattle-telling kid can do. "He ate the soap!"

Dang. It's bad enough we had to call poison control a few weeks ago because he ate my deoderant. (And, I might add, not only the "powder fresh" but also the "shower clean" varieties!) Now we had to call the poor soap lady, who was thinking she's getting an order and instead was peppered with questions on what actually in those bars. Thankfully, we had no health issues as a result.

Some parents threaten to wash their child's mouth out with soap. Ain't going to work in my home.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Going handmade this holiday season? Start now!

Handmade holiday gifts - it's surprising that they didn't take off much last year, following the gas crisis, the credit crisis, etc.

This year, though, the idea seems to be everywhere - from a host of environmental blogs to Paula Deen's Christmas magazine.

If you're a shopping slacker, the key to remember is you can't start most presents on Dec. 23. You have to plan ahead.

Crunchy Chicken recently had a discussion on this topic, and the readers posted some very creative ideas, including:

  • gift certificates to a CSA
  • market bags made from repurposed denim jeans
  • buying vintage
Determined to make gifts on your own? Check out sites like www.oneprettything.com, or if you're looking for other ideas, check out last year's posts:
Not the crafty type? That is completely OK. There are plenty of people who are willing to sell handmade goods that you can pull together for a holiday gift. Check your farmers markets for vinagrettes, sauces, soaps or candles; visit the multitude of holiday fairs; or check out etsy for ideas from small business owners.
Of course, the one gift idea I can't beat - or ever dream to replicate - is from Abbie at Farmer's Daughter:
my then-boyfriend (now husband) gave me a 4-poster cherry bed that he built
on Christmas Eve, then proposed on Christmas morning.
If only all of our gifts had such meaning!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Graham crackers for dinner

Graham crackers for dinner. It's not something one normally thinks of (unless of course, you're 4 years old).

Graham crackers for a snack before dinner? Sure. For lunch? Sure, I'll confess: I have caved on occasion and just served graham cracker and peanut butter sandwiches. As part of the main course for dinner? Not so much.

But the other night, I was stumped. I had some random items and no idea what to do with them.

I started out with some mahi mahi, which I'd splurged (OK, got as a steal) on at the grocery store. I had no idea how to cook it, and googled some recipes.

Then I came up with Oven Baked Mahi Mahi With Orange and Graham Cracker Crust. Having stumbled across some graham crackers that were feeling their age (going a bit stale), I was sold.

You can read the original recipe here, but I had to adapt given my pantry limitations and a few customers of discerning tastes.

Here's what I came up with.

3 pieces mahi mahi
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

For Marinade
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
4 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons coriander, chopped
1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 375.

Add all ingredients for marinade and marinade fish for 15 minutes.

In another bowl, combine orange zest, brown sugar, lemon juice, orange juice and graham cracker crumbs until thoroughly mixed.

Coat fish with graham cracker mixture and place on non-stick baking tray.

Drizzle with olive oil. Cover with aluminium foil and place in oven and let bake for 20-25 mins until tender and cooked thoroughly.

The verdict? Surprisingly good. One gobbled up the topping, the other loved the fish. (So in reality, it worked out.)

But what really got the kids excited was the Peach Cobbler I whipped up after the farmers market. I sliced up our peaches (about four), supplemented with a drained can of peaches, and topped in a casserole dish with 3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs, a few tablespoons of butter, a bit of brown sugar, 1/2 cup of oatmeal and some cinammon. (And as I am writing this, I know understand my high blood sugar later!) I microwaved it for seven minutes. It was a success. Both kids couldn't get enough of it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God gets out His robe

The concept of time is tough for a preschooler to grasp. When is tomorrow today? Does holiday stuff in the store mean we can celebrate this afternoon?

We've been trying to illustrate the span of time with my 4 year old of late. Christmas is after Grandpa's and Mom's birthdays, after the weather turns colder, the grass turns brown(er), the leaves fall from the trees and snow tumbles to the ground. And I thought we got it.

And then this morning, fall weather finally hit. Dressed in fuzzy tights and jackets this morning, my daughter was ready to go. I asked her, "Why do you think it's colder?" - hoping she remembered our "fall" talk from the day before.

"God," she answers. OK, I can't argue with that. "But why does God want it colder?" I ask.

"So He can wear his robe."

Well, He's definitely got one on this evening. I tried to explain that a flowered skirt and palm-tree tank top does not make an appropriate outfit for working in the garden this evening, to no avail. (She later layered up.) Tonight, as the sky turned pink, we had our first reality check that fall's arrived. The tomato plants and cages were ripped out to make room for fall garlic. The dying bean plants were torn up as well. As we're waiting for our fall round of plantings to show the fruits of our labor, we're only hoping the first frost doesn't cut it short. Here's hoping God doesn't want to throw on a parka too soon.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Monday madness and a few links to check out

Light on the posts this last week. We had a major deadline at work, followed by short notice that we’d have unexpected company (the in-laws) in town.

I confess I actually have posts written out – the really old-fashioned way - on the back of scratch paper; I just haven’t had a moment to post.

I admit I feel like I spend a lot of time apologizing for not posting as frequently as I should. But I would rather spend time to write something of interest than write to just make a self-imposed deadline. The beauty of the Web (especially if you have an RSS reader) is that you can come back any time!

Until we get the family back on schedule (hopefully by mid-week), here are a few links to check out.

A great-sounding recipe for roasted Roma tomato salsa over on Going Local.

One Green Generation shows you how to clean out that cooking standby – baking soda – and 20 ways to use it up: I’ll add No. 21: Getting crayon creations off your walls!

Parenting has no-sew Halloween costumes – if you're needing ideas

Green Phone Booth has some interesting ideas for a second life for old wool sweaters.

Conscious Shopper has some early fall seasonal recipes to share.

Have a great Monday!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The hunt for a Halloween costume

Halloween is only a few short weeks away, and the coming of fall and the bright costumes in the stores means only one thing: Trick-or-treating is on the minds of my little one.

I'll admit this season makes me cringe. I hate the idea of wasting money for a costume that will be worn for an hour - barring any meltdowns like last year, where we made it about half a block - or is so cheap that it falls apart during the requisite dress-up times. That being said, I also can't shell out for a $45 dollar-plus-accessories princess costume, either.

Thank goodness for hand-me-downs.

My daughter, who's intrigued by her friends doing cheerleading, is happy to dress up in a gently loved cheerleading costume from a coworker's daughter. And the little guy, who in his recent growth spurt outgrew the one costume we'd been given, will be able to be cozy in black sweats and the dog ears his sister wore two years before.

But the best costume ideas were for us. The other day in the car, we started discussing Halloween. My daughter still was very excited about being a cheerleader. And then she offered ideas for mom and dad.

"You will be a Kansas Mommy," she informed me. A Kansas Mommy? "That's when you wear a shirt that says Kansas on it, but not a shirt with a Jayhawk on it." (Smart girl!)

"And Daddy will be a basketball daddy. He can wear a basketball shirt."

I love the way my kid thinks!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cycling, community and a little TLC...Other writers' views on being green

The last few weeks, I've been up to my ears in work projects, so I'm slowly getting a chance to catch up on my reading. Here's a few articles from other writers worth looking at:

Recently I was inspired by a man I met who lost more than 250 pounds. It started with bariatric surgery but his success was largely due to his love of cycling. Just for fun, he rode across the state of Indiana the other day. Yep, biking isn’t just for kids. I’ve had to listen to my father and brother tell their tales of what I consider extreme bike rides for years, but other people are jumping on the biking bandwagon too, for fun and for transportation. Chile shares her experiences during a month-long personal challenge to drop her car and writes about “falling in and out of love” with her bike.

Fall means back-to-school nights, football and fall festivals. We’re coming back from trips around the country and re-settling in at home. But it’s more than just getting together with the neighbors. A strong community means a greener planet, too. The Conscious Shopper gives you five reasons why.

For all of my gardening mishaps this year, the biggest is that little thing called watering. As my lawn browns to a crisp – interesting because it really hasn’t gotten past the 80s much this year – I keep forgetting that I need to water more than my weed patch in the back. In My Kitchen Garden gives me a little more inspiration – and a reminder that a little TLC now could pay off next spring.

And the September APLS carnival is up! Does size matter when it comes to being green? Find out!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ten dollars worth of memories

Ten dollars and an afternoon with the kids. It doesn't get very far.

I suppose you could get ice cream, or rent a movie. But really, your options are limited. Unless you get a little more creative.

Today was a very filled day for us. We were able to visit the Fishers farmers market and arts market with a friend, where we picnicked and snacked on blueberries from one of the stands and watched the kids dance to classic rock covers. Oh, and I had some adult conversation. From that standpoint alone, the day was a success.

But the ride home proved interesting. I had errands she needed to squeeze in, a few tired kids and no desire to get back out once she got home. And so I promised them a trip to the "adventure store." My daughter was intrigued.

We pulled into Goodwill - hardly glamorous, I know - where they had a 50 percent off everything sale and went to work to find a surprise. I scored with a nearly new business suit for $4.50 - enough to later justify springing for a pair of navy heels to go with it - and we poured over the Christmas tins (picking out the clean ones--yes, you must check) for my daughters' baking endeavors at Christmas. (At 50 cents each, you could hardly complain.)

And then, we hit the jackpot. My daughter's been begging for dress-up clothes for some time. Granted, it's a very specific branded princess kind, but she wants dress-up clothes no less. And we found them, crammed among the racks. Four dress-up "dresses" (admittedly two were shiny women's nightgowns that we're just going to shorten the straps on) for less than $10. All the way home, I heard how she now had dresses for her and her three neighbor friends to play dress up with!

The funny thing is, I have never seen something put away so quickly in my life. No sooner than we were in the door than she spirited up the stairs to put dress #1 on for dinner. It was proudly worn until PJ time, and she puffed up her chest with pride when she told her friend tonight, "I have new dress up clothes. I got them from the camping store."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tomato tip from Dr. Greene

In one of the strangest ways of work and life intersecting, I'm listening to an online presentation by Dr. Alan Greene, the author of Raising Baby Green.

He mentions that 40 percent of kids won't touch tomatoes - but they're twice as likely to actually try - and enjoy - the tomato if you had them the knife! "It's a simple thing to do to involve them in the meal preparation," he said.

"If you take them to the garden and have them pick it, you're more likely to have them try it. If you have a child plant a tomato, wash it and pick it...it becomes a treasure."

Yes, they are treasures in our house. Tomatoes make a great use as balls. And my kids love to grow them in the garden. But eating them? Hardly. They just make my daughter in her words, "sad." Guess we aren't statistics in this family!

Flu prevention: Can you do it without Clorox?

Flu prevention - particularly H1N1 and pandemic planning - has been on my list of hot projects lately at work. It's hard to advise people when even the CDC is evolving its understanding of the virus.

Many of the recommendations I read involve super-sanitizing everything - including regular use of hand sanitizers as your Plan B. Clorox and other cleaning wipes and hand sanitizers are well-positioned next to every cash register these days. And a coworker of mine is already choking us with regular use of Oust in the office. But can you take your flu prevention efforts a little greener? Yes!

Here are some of the CDC's recommendations on preventing the transmission of the flu (including H1N1):
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Wash your hands immediately after.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Wash for 15 to 20 seconds. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Keep surfaces (especially bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, kitchen counters and toys for children) clean.
  • If someone in your home is sick, don't use their dishes or utensils if they haven't been washed.
  • Avoid “hugging” laundry when you're carrying it to the washing machine it to prevent contaminating yourself. Wash your hands with soap and water after handling dirty laundry.
  • Wash linens using household laundry soap and tumble dry on a hot setting. (I know, not the greenest, but it beats getting a bug!)
  • When possible, keep the sick person in a room separate from the common areas of the house.
  • If you use cloth towels, assign different colored cloth towels to each person in the household.

Hmmm....Sounds like a lot of common sense during a potentially stressful time!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Streudel for one

"Apple streudel."

Every time we have a holiday and I solicit requests, that's the answer I get from my brother: "apple streudel." That and Pupaki, a bread dish.

They're dishes that just feel like home to us. Each time we went to Wisconsin, my grandmother would make our most-requested dishes. And usually that involved her lugging up a five-gallon bucket of diced apples from the freezer to make apple streudel. It's a long process that involves eating up your entire kitchen table and a few hours before it's done. And my grandmother and us would work to spread out the apples, the sugar, the cinnamon, then roll it up in the sheet and prepare it for baking.

I can't tell you how many photographs were taken over the years that involved making streudel, but it was a definite rite of passage. My husband was called into service on one visit. My grandfather even was put to work when my grandmother had injured her arm. No one was immune.

And so, years later, streudel is still part of our family tradition. Many of us cousins shake our head at our failed attempts - mine, most notably by commiting the blasphemy one Christmas of trying to make it with some kind of fake butter. Somehow, it never seems to be quite right.

making apple streudel
But still we try. We would whack up our apples on Christmas Eve, my brother and I cracking jokes and ultimately tossing apples at each other. And I still fondly recall the Christmas, where my 18-month-old little girl stood on tip-toes to try to line the apple pieces oh-so-carefully along the edge of the dough. Alongside her was her mom and her siblings, in town from miles away.

Tonight, on an unseasonably warm evening in September, I realized what made it special. It's not streudel time, but I thought of it as I was dicing another bag of apples from our babysitter. This time, instead of making just an overnight batch of applesauce, I thought I'd hold some back in the freezer for Christmas baking.

And tonight, I stood at the table in the silence, cutting up apples to freeze. And it just wasn't the same. Something was missing.

Really, it's not just about the food. It's about family.

Grandma Johnson's Apple Streudel
4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup lard or shortening (we use butter or margarine)
2 beaten eggs
1 cup warm water

2 quarts peeled and sliced apples(or more)
2 cups sugar
2 handfuls of Corn Flakes
1/2 cup raisins

Mix flour, salt and shortening. Add the eggs and enough warm water to make a soft dough. Knead on floured board until smooth and elastic (the longer you knead the better it pulls later). Cover with a bowl and let rest about 2 hours.

Cover table with a large cloth. Sprinkle cloth all over with flour. Roll dough long and narrow to get it started. Then put hand under the dough and keep stretching dough gently until it is very thin, trying not to tear it.

When dough is stretched very thin, scatter the sliced, cut up apples all over the dough. Sprinkle with the sugar, cinnamon, raisins and the crushed Corn Flake crumbs (or you may use 1 cup fried bread crumbs).

Roll up into a long roll. You may do this by raising one side of the cloth and the strudle will roll up by itself. Cut the roll in half. Place streudel rolled with open side up, on two greased cookie sheets with four sides. Pinch ends shut. Grease top with melted butter or margarine.

Put in 400 degrees oven for 15 min. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake about 45 min. more until brown. Remove from oven. Cut into 3-inch pieces. Remove from pan while hot using a pancake turner. Is best when warm.

Note: The dough pulls easier in a warm room rather than in a cold one.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's not the size, it's what you do with it that counts

I miss the days of carefree living, when I could stop what I was doing at the drop of the hat and...

Have a 5-minute uninterrupted conversation. (OK, a 1-minute uninterrupted conversation.)

Leave the house on a whim, with nothing but a small purse.

Go for a long walk without someone whining about having to use the potty.

Spontaneously road trip some place.

Make a 3-course Chinese dinner for some friends.

(Where did you think I was going with this anyway?)

I confess I had to chuckle when Tina at Crstn85 proposed a topic of "Does size matter?" for the September APLS carnival. Does it matter, she wondered, if you're a singleton or a party of five when it comes to being green?

Oh yes, yes, it does.

Before I was a mom, I didn't give much thought to environmental concerns. Sure, we were card-carrying members of the Sierra Club, loved to hike, recycled our cans, had our 40-mpg little car. But I didn't think about bigger picture items. Like the amount of plastic we chucked each week, or what it contained. Or the amount of chemicals coating our food. Or what really the world would be like a generation from now if we didn't change our ways.

Before I was a mom, my trash can and recycle bin were a lot emptier. I didn't have to juggle three versions of milk, or sippy cups, or random Happy Meal toys saved lovingly by my mom, or craft projects from day care (now multiplied by two).

Before I was a mom, shopping at the farmers market, cooking a healthy dinner and working in my garden were a heck of a lot easier.

Before I was a mom, I didn't realize how much fun making a batch of muffins, or playing in the puddles in your garden, or taking a walk at a snail's pace could be.

And I say all of these things, as a mom, full well knowing that whatever I do, I'm in the middle of a spectrum. I'm in the middle of the fast-food-for-dinner crowd and the stay-at-home, handmade-everything moms. For every mom who amazes me with her ability to make well-rounded dinners from food in their backyard, presented on recycled placements recreated from repurposed materials, there's the mom who frankly, thinks I'm nuts to go as far as I have.

And I know that circumstances in my life will change. Someday, we could have more financial resources again. Someday, my kids will be able to be left alone for five minutes without fear of them using the magazine rack as a stepping stool to the stove. Someday, we'll be able to work in the yard without worrying that the kids will run in the street or fling all of my tomatoes like softballs. And someday, this too will have passed.

For now, though, I'll enjoy my seemingly weird Saturday traditions of chasing my babies at the farmers market, cooking with my kids, playing in the mud patch that was a garden and thinking someday I just might get that laundry done, even if it means putting them in the dryer on high.