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Add to the insult is that HP apparently sets your ink to expire and refuses to print if the ink is out of date.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!