Monday, May 03, 2010

Simple Living: Clothing

I read somewhere that the average American female owns something like eighty shirts. Even if half of these shirts are off-season, this stills leaves the hypothetical female in question with enough shirts to go a month without doing laundry.

I probably own this number of tops. My weight fluctuates wildly, which accounts for some of the excess. I live in an area with temperatures over a year ranging more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which adds to my wardrobe needs. However, there is no denying that I simply have too many shirts. I decided to pare back, and here is how I did it:

1. If it's too big, it goes. It's one thing to keep my skinny clothes because I dream of fitting into them. But am I dreaming of gaining a few pounds? Of course not. I have several friends who are a little bustier than me who will happily take the hand-me-downs.

2. If it's not my style, it goes. I get a lot of hand-me-downs--no complaints here. There are items I love, items I pass on to someone else, and items I wish I could wear without feeling like a kid playing dress-up but for some reason can't. I tend to keep the last group anyway. Today I am passing them on.

3. Keep a light at the end of the tunnel. I made a deal with myself that for every five shirts I got rid of, I would buy one I really love from a local thrift store. This helped me make some hard decisions. Children aren't the only ones who respond to bribes, and I have already earned three 'new' tops. This will require a ten dollar expenditure, but ultimately expand my useable wardrobe while also giving me a little more closet space.

Once you have finished with shirts, why not move on to pants, dresses, and pajamas? Make sure you are giving away or donating these garments where possible, and replacing them with used ones. This keeps your fashion carbon-neutral and keeps small children out of third-world sweatshops.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Simple Living: Eating Out

I recently watched a rerun of an Oprah show on voluntary simplicity. It was such an inspiring show that I visited Oprah's website to read the comments. It was a little depressing to find that many of the comments were from people who felt that they can't afford to live more simply.

This seems counterintuitive to me, because needing less money to survive is one of the major points of simple living. It was emphasized on the show; for example, one woman was comfortably supporting a family herself as an elderly caregiver, which pays just a bit more than minimum wage. If you can live comfortably on a smaller income, you are free to either find a job you love more, or to work less hours. Simple living is a frugal choice, without any kind of investment needed. It's hard to see how using less electricity would cost more, unless you think the only way to scale back is to go solar.

I have been thinking about my blog for a while, but unsure of what to post here. I hate sounding preachy, and for the record, I don't think I am always a model of green living. However, I am doing my best on a daily basis to use less and less, and to make what I use more meaningful. After reading the comments on Oprah's website, I decided to devote space here to cheap, common sense ways of living a little more simply.

Here is one tip on scaling back on eating out, something which kills many American budgets. We all have our favorite restaurants. Figure out how much you spend for one fast food meal. In my case, it's about $4-5 per person. Next, figure out how much a meal at your favorite restaurant would cost. My favorite cuisine is Indian, so I'm looking at $12-15 per person. Is one Indian meal worth three drive thru meals? Absolutely, at least to me.

We don't eat fast food a lot, but I certainly know it is there in an emergency. We have fewer 'emergencies' if I know there is an Indian restaurant visit coming a little closer every time I think ahead and pack sandwiches. Trading food we really don't like for more food we love is not a hard switch, but these are the decisions that will get you on the road to more simple living.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Great 20th Century Cookbook

I love to read about how people used to keep their homes and cook, and the easiest way to do this is to purchase old cooking and housekeeping books. My latest acquisition, The Great 20th Century Cookbook from 1902, is a little frightening however.

Although we think of modern lives as being filled with chemicals, they clearly were a large part of life in 1902 as well. I can't imagine keeping cobalt, powdered lead, and other chemicals in my home, but the housekeeping section of my book seems to assume that housewives have these things lying around. When we work with cobalt or lead in the lab, we wear thick rubber gloves, safety goggles, and face masks.

Another common misperception, and I am sure I have pointed this out before, is the relative lack of meat in the turn-of-the-century diet. The menus provided in the book seem to include moderate amounts of meat once a day. This is confirmed by other old cookbooks I have collected. One from the forties tells housewives that they should try to increase their meat intake to once per day. The portions are small in both books--this new one thinks a single calve's liver can feed a family. In my house, that would be more than enough because no one would want more than a bite!

The lack of cleanliness is the other thing that is striking. In my 1902 book, dusting is believed to be bad for the health. Instead of kicking up dust inside, housewives were supposed to drag out the furniture and dust in the yard. The book recommends doing this once or twice per year. Similarly, this housewife was told that heavy carpets don't have to be taken out and beaten every year. Every other year is fine... remember that this is before vacuum cleaners.

From reading the book, it seems that cooking and laundry were enough to keep a woman hopping. The process for doing laundry begins with starting a wood fire in your yard early in the morning and ends with ironing and starching well into the night. With people wearing maybe one or two outfits on a regular basis, this is a lot of work for a small amount of actual clean laundry. It makes hanging out my laundry seem so easy that I am a little embarrassed for all the times I have resorted to using a dryer.

Here are few other interesting tidbits of information that most of us now would consider questionable:
1. Night air causes illness.
2. People with fevers should be given only a small ration of water or they will become sicker.
3. Wine is very bad for you and should be administered only on a doctor's order. Cocaine and opiates are better and more modern choices, even for children, and can be used liberally for a variety of ailments.
4. Hydrophobia, now called rabies, can be cured with a root called elecampane soaked in fresh milk. (Rabies is incurable once symptoms set in.)
5. For poison oak, apply lead powder directly to the rash.

Some of the folk remedies are harmless enough that I plan to try them, although powdered lead will not be making its debut in my medicine cabinet anytime soon. The point is that we tend to romanticize old times as being cleaner, safer, and less complicated, when just the opposite seems to be true. Today I am going to count my blessings as my clothing washer takes a full day's worth of work off my hands.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Say Hello to Spring with Yummy Vegetarian Meals

In the winter, I just want meat. I try to hold back for the sake of my waistline and the billions of people who share the planet with me, but it can be a struggle.

I found the following three vegetarian recipes in various places on the internet and really loved all of them. They are hearty and comforting, which is important on a cold, dark day. Best of all, they use things that can be found in the average house, or at least in the average grocery store.

1. Mock Crab Cakes
The creator of the recipe says these taste just like crab cakes and my kids beg to differ because we hate crabcakes, but we love these. My husband the crabcake lover says they are by no means a crab cake, but that they are quite good. Either way, they are delicious, and I can see potential for modifying the recipe to suit what's in the farmer's markets once we are back in fresh produce season.

2 c coarsely grated zucchini (liquid drained, squeeze out)
1 c Panko bread crumbs
2 T grated onion
2 T mayonnaise
2 T cream cheese (opt, I add)
2 eggs
2 t old bay seasoning
1 T chopped parsley
2 T garlic (minced dried or fresh works)
In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients, mix and shape into cakes.
Put by tablespoon or cookie scoop onto a fry pan with your favorite oil and fry.
And once you mix the "batter" use it immediately so it does not get soggy.
I make up the batter then throw in zucchini and then the panko bread crumbs last and make them all right away.

2. Low Fat Vegetable and Pasta Casserole
1 (16 ounce) package penne or rotini pasta--best and most filling with whole grain pasta 
2 cups chopped broccoli
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup flour
4 cups skim milk
1/2 cup parmesan cheese or romano cheese
white pepper (I used black, no biggie) 
5 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (I used 1 1/4 Tbsp dried basil)
1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs
butter-flavored cooking spray (I suggest skipping this. You don't need butter-flavored chemicals... simply toss the breadcrumbs with a little melted butter.)
1. Cook pasta 6 minutes in boiling water.
2. Add the broccoli through bell pepper to the pasta and simmer 6-8 minutes more until pasta is al dente; drain.
3. Make white sauce: sauté the onions and garlic in butter 1-2 minutes in a saucepan over medium-high heat; stir in flour and milk and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes until mixture coats the back of a spoon; remove from heat.
4. Setting aside 2 Tbs parmesan cheese, stir the rest of cheese and the pepper into the white sauce.
5. Combine the pasta and vegetables, white sauce and 4 Tbs of the basil; place in 13 X 9-inch baking pan or 3-1/2 quart casserole.
6. Mix the breadcrumbs with the remaining 2 Tbs parmesan & remaining 1 T basil; sprinkle over the casserole.
7. Spray butter-flavored spray over top to coat.
8. Bake at 350° approximately 30 minutes until golden brown.
Came out bubbly and great even with my few little changes.

3. Baked Lentils With Cheese, from the Less Is More:Recipes and suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world's limited food resources cookbook. Lots of vegetarian recipes in this book that still feel like real food! Plus, this is a super cheap and super healthy dish, especially if you stock up on cheese while it is on sale like we do.
Preheat oven to 375
Combine in shallow 9X13 baking dish:
1 3/4 C lentils, rinsed
2 C. water
1 whole bay leaf (I skipped it because I don't really like bay leaves)
2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
1/8 t. each marjoram, sage, thyme
2 Large onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 c. canned tomatoes
Cover tightly and bake 30 mins.

Uncover and stir in:
2 large carrots, sliced
1/2 C thinly sliced celery
Baked covered 40 mins. until veggies are tender. Stir in:
1 green pepper, chopped (optional)
2 T. finely chopped parsley
Sprinkle on top:
3 C shredded cheddar cheese
Bake uncovered, 5 min until cheese melts.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Laura Ingalls Test

Today I was at Target and I saw something I thought I needed at a price I couldn't pass up: children's jeans for $10. My second grader and kindergartner have both outgrown about half of their wardrobes in this new year. They each have about five pair of school pants left, which are becoming more worn by the day. It makes sense to buy these high enough quality jeans and fill their wardrobe out a little. Yet I put them back and walked away (sadly).

At the same time, I have been reading the Laura Ingalls books--again--this time with my 7-year-old daughter, the one who 'needs' pants. In these books, the narrator repeatedly mentions having only one or two dresses each year, plus an old patched one from the year before to swim and play in. In this context, five pair of school pants, plus skirts, dresses, church clothes, and a drawer of play clothes, seems enough. Even excessive.

In the nineteenth century and before, consumer goods were made by intense labor. Growing cotton is hard on land and hard on workers. It had to be spun into thread and woven into cloth before Mrs. Ingalls spent hours cutting and sewing it into the garment her daughter would wear. The process hasn't changed a lot. We have some mechanization, and we have passed off the labor to the third world, but making garments is still a labor intensive activity.

Here's where the Laura Ingalls test comes in: imagine talking to Mrs. Ingalls and saying that you need to buy new clothing for a child that has five presentable outfits. She seems like a polite type, but she would certainly be surprised if not dismayed. If you are like many American families, you could also imagine telling her that your family is already in debt and that you might even put this purchase on credit as well. One hundred years ago, this would have been viewed as highly irresponsible.

This is an amusing mind game to play whenever you find yourself about to make an impulse buy at any price. Here's a less pleasant one. Picture yourself explaining the situation to a mother in the modern day third world instead. Her government accepted money from a US corporation to kick their family off their ancestral farm land, which is now being destroyed by cotton crops. With nowhere to live, she and her family moved to town, where the only way to survive is to work twelve hour days, seven days a week, in a factory where our $3 t-shirts are made. Even the toddlers. And they barely make enough to out rice and beans on the table once a day. This is the true story of our clothing, repeated over and over in every country you see on a clothing label after "Made In". Would she understand? They don't resent us because of George W. Bush. It goes farther and deeper than that.

This isn't a guilt trip. We aren't going to stop being Americans overnight, and neither will you. Just something to think about. Every decision we make is either supporting a very unfair, unpleasant status quo or helping to create a new one. So, I said no to the jeans. We'll find something fair trade or gently used before next year rolls around, and the kids will make their wardrobe last until then.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Free Burt's Bees Toothpaste

All I can say is right on. Get your free toothpaste here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Yes, We Can...

...afford to eat better.

The professor in my argument class this quarter decided that our main focus should be health care because of the timeliness of the issue. Like we can't just flip on the television and hear about that--but whatever. We had to write several essays related to health care and have class-wide discussions on it.

My first essay focused on why our health care costs so much--more than twice what it does in other industrialized nations, in fact. The answer seems to be that we are sue-happy and, more important, very unhealthy due to a really crappy diet. Obesity and related problems create up to half of our national health care bill. That's not counting things like type 2 diabetes that are closely tied to but not entirely caused by obesity.

My second essay discussed how we can change this. I said that if we are really serious about it, we need to treat junk foods like another famously harmful substance: tobacco. According to my research, the average obese person has health care costs far exceeding a smoker. So why are we serving junk food in our school cafeterias? Why can people buy chips and soda with food stamps? Why don't we tax these foods and make them illegal on school campuses?

My teacher wrote a note on my paper suggesting that most Americans can't afford healthy foods. And I say: Yes, we can.

Convenience foods cost more than whole foods per pound, and they seem to be the culprits in our expanding waistlines. People think that dollar menus are cheaper than cooking, but are they really? Sure, it's hard to beat one dollar for a burger, but no one is getting fat from that two hundred calorie burger. They are getting fat from a larger, three or four dollar burger, along with two dollar supersized fries and a large Coke. A single value meal is around six dollars, about the cost for a healthy homemade dinner for your whole family.

People in third world countries eat better than we do and have lower rates of diet-related disease, because they can't afford our crappy diet. Americans have more expendable income than most Europeans, who also manage to eat better. Anyway, whole foods are cheaper than Frankenfood if you look beyond out of season pomegranates and radicchio. So it's counterintuitive to suggest that money is the issue.

I think time and laziness are the issue. I'm not saying fat people are particularly lazy, but that we all are in this country. Some people are blessed with metabolisms that can handle all the extra calories and the sedentary lifestyle, others are not so lucky. And none of us feel like dedicating an hour to cooking in the evening, although many of us do it anyway. It's easier, albeit more expensive, to just open a box. And therein lies the problem.

We do have the money--beans and rice are cheap. We do have the time as well, for the most part. Most people feel like they have no time, but when their favorite TV show comes on, suddenly time is in surplus. We spend time on the phone, time shopping for things we don't really need, time waiting in fast food lines. It's only when it comes time to throw the beans in the crockpot that we get all short on time. Suddenly we don't have even a minute, unless that minute is spent in a McDonald's drive-thru.

If you aren't working, or even if you are, you have time--as much or more time than I do, at least. We can eat healthy. Yes, we can. To borrow another famous tagline: just do it.

There are a few caveats here. If you are feeding yourself on less than $5 a week, then you will be relying on ultra-cheap, ultra-unhealthy foods like ramen. But you won't get fat... you'll have a hard time just getting enough calories to survive. Obesity comes from eating too much--way too much--for a period of years, not from spending a few tight months eating from a Styrofoam cup. Also, organics do cost more. But you won't get obese from eating a conventionally grown apple.

In one of our class discussions, a girl said she and her one year old live on fast food because she is too busy as a single mother to cook and she can't afford better food anyway. But she gets her nails done every week and has a constant flow of new clothes and Coach handbags. She has time and money to shop and watch someone airbrush her nails. Just not the time to eat healthy.

It's not her fault, either. Every time you turn on the TV, some expert is claiming that Americans are fat because we can't afford the money and time for a healthy diet. People are being encouraged to make unhealthy choices and told that they have no control over something as basic as what they put in their mouth. But we all have the choice. We all have the option to eat well. Say it with me: Yes, we can.